As government officials are considering shuttering all but essential services, Starbucks employees have a message to Starbucks management: we’re not essential. In a petition with over 20 thousand signatures, Starbucks employees are imploring the company to suspend business until further notice, as “both customers AND partners are at risk of catching and spreading the virus.”
The petition was started by Aniya Johnson, a barista in Philadelphia who told Vice “There’s no solid choice for anyone — it’s go to work, or miss pay. And a lot of people can’t afford to miss pay because they have children, elderly loved ones, or just bills.” She and other employees are calling for “suspending all business hours, until further notice, WHILE continuing to pay both hourly, and salary workers.”
As of now, Starbucks has one of the better paid sick leave plans in response to COVID-19, though that’s a low bar to clear. The company already offers baristas paid sick leave, and it implemented a “catastrophe pay” program of an additional 14 days of paid leave to any employee diagnosed with COVID-19, or anyone who has had prolonged contact with someone who has been diagnosed. However, given that it’s incredibly difficult to get tested for COVID-19 in the U.S., it’s nearly impossible to obtain that diagnosis, or know if you’ve been around someone who has it.
In a public letter, Starbucks executive vice president Rossann Williams wrote “you should never have to choose between work and taking care of yourself.” But employees argue that, despite protective measures, they’re doing just that. Some say they’re being slammed at certain locations, and worry that they’ll experience prolonged exposure to people carrying the virus by the very nature of their jobs. In the petition, Johnson specifically points out how Starbucks are often strategically located near schools and hospitals, places where viruses more easily spread.
Blue Bottle, another national (though smaller) coffee chain, temporarily closed all its U.S. cafes on Monday. In a letter, CEO Bryan Meehan wrote the company is “not planning any changes to our number of staff, pay rates, or health care benefits” for the next three months, and “all our staff, including baristas, will be paid for their scheduled hours.” Blue Bottle is keeping its stores in South Korea and Japan open, however, as “the information there is more complete, with extensive testing and medical support clearly in place.”
Right now, the options for food-service workers to both stay safe and pay rent are limited. For those who have been laid off from their places of work, unemployment websites have been overwhelmed. For those who continue to work in places where local governments have yet to mandate closures, the risk of exposure seems ever increasing. And though Congress just passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which offers paid sick leave to any worker testing positive for COVID-19, massive loopholes mean employees of companies with over 500 employees (like Starbucks) or under 50 employees can be exempted.
If all but “essential” services continue to shut down in cities across America, the question arises of who defines “essential”? There is a lot of grey area in there. But also, most of us could go a few weeks without a frappuccino.