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Why Baristas All Over the Country Are Telling Each Other Their Salaries

Even at coffee companies with a progressive sheen, baristas say they’re underpaid. A new worker-led movement is trying to change that.

As a veteran of the coffee industry, Kevin Leal, an educator at a Manhattan coffee shop that he declined to name, believes that a fair hourly wage for barista jobs should start at $16 minimum, before tips. A few weeks ago, however, a barista gave Leal insight into New York’s labor market: an anonymous Google survey and corresponding spreadsheet, with row after row of coffee shops and workers’ wages, tips, years of experience, and benefits, as well as other details.

Among the shops listed was a previous employer, but what Leal saw dispirited him: One entry claimed a barista was earning $14 per hour, a full dollar less than what Leal made during his tenure there.

“I was pretty disgusted,” Leal says, adding that seeing hourly wages below $16 plus tips “is completely unfair.”

After viewing the New York spreadsheet, Leal felt the need to ensure that his colleagues at coffee shops around the city were aware of how much their bosses were paying them and their coworkers. And he’s not alone.

Beginning this past September, after an anonymous barista in Philadelphia shared a Google survey and an accompanying spreadsheet on social media and job boards in the hopes of crowdsourcing information about local coffee industry employees’ job titles, wages, estimated tips, and other benefits, hundreds of workers in the coffee industry have shared their own (often low) wages. For many workers, the hope is that in making this information communal knowledge, conversations might emerge about how careers in the coffee industry can finally become well-paid and viable means of employment.

The stereotype of the part-time student pulling espresso shots might persist for some, but specialty coffee has evolved into a full-fledged industry where workers can theoretically pursue lifelong careers. Still, many workers’ wages don’t reflect their professional experience, nor would they likely be considered livable: Nationwide, baristas make on average only $11.17 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In response to low pay and alleged mistreatment by management, workers have organized via union drives, protests, and walkouts.

“There’s been a tipping point in general in the industry in terms of talking about pay and power imbalances in the last three years,” says Jenn Chen, vice president of the Bay Area Coffee Community and creator of the Bay Area survey. Following waves of union organizing and strikes, she says, pay transparency is “the logical next step.”

Over 100 entries poured in for the Philadelphia survey within two weeks of its publication; shortly after the Philadelphia Inquirer and other organizations shared the news about workers taking action to address working conditions and foster unity, current and former coffee shop employees began copying the template and creating their own spreadsheets in cities across the country. As of publication, at least 15 surveys and spreadsheets, covering regions from Portland, Oregon, to New Haven, Connecticut, reveal a partial picture of the coffee labor market in their areas. Some surveys now also include questions about whether workers are members of marginalized communities.

“We’re just working for healthier work environments and a healthy relationship between employees, management, and ownership, and how they can support their employees,” says Felix Tran, a barista and co-founder of the industry organization Coffee at Large, which published the Seattle survey.

This moment of clarity is especially revealing for the third-wave coffee movement. For years, once-upstart companies like La Colombe and long-time specialty coffee devotees have projected an air of cultural superiority to coffee corporations like Starbucks. The third-wave edge, however, is proving blunt in terms of paying employees.

The Philadelphia survey creator, who wishes to remain anonymous and who worked at a La Colombe shop for two years, says that customers coming into the store “had the idea that we made a lot more money than we did, and that was frustrating, because we were really reliant on tips.

“A lot of people went there because they thought it was a progressive company that paid employees well,” they add.

La Colombe’s co-founder and CEO, Todd Carmichael, has championed a $15-an-hour minimum wage, even writing in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed in 2017 that “unless you pay your employees a nonpredatory living wage that keeps people and their families above the poverty line, you don’t deserve to be in business.” La Colombe starts baristas in Philadelphia at $9 an hour before tips, according to the Inquirer. (Representatives for La Colombe declined to comment for this article.)

“We’ve been an industry that’s been aimed at Starbucks, and we haven’t matched them on a lot of things while we’re trying to dethrone them,” says Eater Young Gun Sumi Ali (’18), co-founder of the direct-to-consumer coffee company Yes Plz and a longtime barista. According to Glassdoor, Starbucks baristas make, on average, $8 per hour on the low end for their base pay, but full- and part-time employees receive benefits that include health coverage, 401K matching, tuition reimbursement, and paid time off. “Starbucks really takes care of their employees,” Ali says. “No one can argue that.” (Recently, a petition was created to encourage Starbucks to raise its barista wages to a minimum of $12 an hour “to improve the customer experience, employees’ livelihood, and the overall morale of the business.”)

Wanting management to share the books goes far beyond coffee. The original survey creator said that they were inspired by a Philadelphia art museum curator who helped create an anonymous Google spreadsheet that crowdsourced thousands of museum employees’ salaries nationwide. Journalists have been compiling freelance rates of various publications for years, and adjunct professors share their salaries through the Adjunct Project. Also, there’s Glassdoor.

In addition to baristas employing these surveys as possible bargaining tools for higher hourly wages or using entries to elucidate wage discrimination for marginalized communities, Ali believes that removing the secrecy of salaries makes it clear to workers what their earnings may look like as they progress in the coffee industry, both at their current company and when at a new one. “As a barista coming up through the ranks, you’re always looking for the next thing,” he recalls. “I made less money becoming a roaster, and that was really hard for me to square.”

Bailey Arnold created the New York survey. Currently a market development manager at Oatly for the Northeast, Arnold worked as a barista and then as a coffee shop store manager for three and a half years. One of her goals is to empower workers to provide management with new ideas for how money should be allocated within the company. She says that if companies introduce pay transparency in the workplace, and later add further transparency, like insight into business expenses, higher-ups might learn from workers that “nobody cares about this one [cost] that an employer is focused on, and they could use that money to pay them differently.”

Although baristas and members of the coffee community have rallied around this online push for transparency, Arnold recognizes one possible downside to these lists. Employers, she says, might suspect that some of their employees have posted their wages online and may attempt to oust those workers. (Although it has been legal for private-sector workers to discuss wages openly according since 1935, per the National Labor Relations Act, a recent survey found that 25 percent of private-sector workers fear retribution for sharing their wages.)

So what comes next? Implementing pay transparency? Higher wages? More unions? Worker-owned coffee shops?

Nick Cho, the co-founder of Wrecking Ball in San Francisco, says he recognizes that these documents are “an outcry from the community that they’re not satisfied, and it’s not enough.” He has even sent the spreadsheets to his own employees. However, he can see some potential problems other owners might find with pay transparency, noting that it would likely make it harder to profit while running a business. “Historically, companies don’t like too much transparency, especially with lower paid workers,” Cho says, “because it takes control away from the employer to see their business as levers and wheels.”

For now, however, many baristas see these surveys and spreadsheets as a stepping stone in the discussion around transforming shops into healthier and more equitable workplaces. Shortly after Leal learned about the New York spreadsheet, he shared the document with baristas who suspected they were paid less than men doing the same job at the same coffee shop in Brooklyn.

The hope, he says, is that they can use the spreadsheet to call out the discriminatory practices and argue for higher wages.

“I think the more people are able to see the wage transparency sheets,” Leal says, “the more they will be able to see their worth and know that they’re worth way more than they’re being paid.”

Matthew Sedacca is a writer living in Brooklyn.
Carolyn Figel is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and animator.