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labor Starbucks’ Decision To End COVID Protections Endangers Me and Other Baristas

As a Starbucks worker in Oklahoma City, I’m fighting together with our union to ensure that COVID safety is a top priority.

On October 2, Starbucks removed the last of its COVID-19 protections for cafe employees. These protections included up to two five paid isolation days off per quarter, two hours of vaccine pay, and four hours of vaccine effects pay. Since the beginning of the pandemic, paid leave for COVID has been essential in protecting workers from the financial hardship of the long isolation periods associated with infections. And while Starbucks and some sectors of our government would like to believe “the pandemic is over,” the death count and high rates of long COVID-induced disability suggest otherwise. 


As a Starbucks employee who works in close proximity to other staff and customers each week, I find this announcement callous and frightening, not to mention allegedly illegal. At the more than 250 unionized locations around the country, Starbucks is no longer unilaterally permitted to change policy without negotiating with its employees through the union, but that has not stopped them. 

When my coworkers and I heard the announcement, we immediately knew that many of us would not have enough available sick time to cover us if we got COVID-19. At the same time, we would not be able to afford to take unpaid time off either. This hurts not only Starbucks employees, but customers, as well: Do you want a sick barista pouring your coffee? 

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Unionized Starbucks workers are granted one hour of sick leave for every thirty hours worked (non-union workers now get one hour for every twenty-five hours worked). And because the COVID isolation benefit has ended, we will still be expected to use our limited sick or vacation time to cover any illness related absence. Although the company’s COVID-19 policy had its faults (it did not require partners to test negative before coming back to work, for example), it was better than nothing.

Starbucks “partners”—the company’s term for employees—are already feeling the material effects of this change. Dylan Hartsfield, a two-year partner and new organizer in Arkansas, recently was out of work for six days with COVID-19. He missed around thirty hours worth of work, and had to use the majority of his remaining vacation time to cover the rest. Being out with a bout of COVID-19 cost him $300 out of his paycheck as he was not able to pick up shifts or stay late to get the hours he needed. 

Even with vaccinations, people are still getting sick with highly contagious variants of COVID-19 and are expected to isolate themselves, whether they can afford to or not. COVID-19 infections are on the rise again—with the Omicron BA5 variant, the most infectious dominant strain to date. Meanwhile, Starbucks still will not provide enough sick leave to fully protect its workers. In a similar move previously declared illegal by the NLRB, for example, the company announced increased sick accrual time for non-unionized stores only.  

Starbucks already had an NLRB complaint filed against it when they first announced benefits to be excluded from union stores (there is a hearing that started on October 25). It does not appear that Starbucks cares about either violating labor law or protecting their workers; it seems they are only focusing on keeping out the union.

We need Starbucks to ensure we have paid isolation time if we get sick. As low-wage food service workers, we simply cannot afford to take multiple five-day periods off per year to deal with COVID-19. And we may very well need our sick and vacation time for other illnesses, or to take an actual break from work. This is not just a question of worker safety but of public health. 

Earlier this year, Amazon also announced it would end paid time off for COVID-19 and other pandemic protections it had previously provided. New York State fought back against this change, since it was one of the few states that offered paid time off protections for workers who get COVID-19. 

Vaccines have reduced the severity of illness and deaths, but COVID-19 is still a serious threat because of its potential long-term symptoms. It is still a debilitating illness that has a higher chance of severe damage with every reinfection. Not only is it still harmful to the public, it’s bad for business. The Brookings Institution found that up to 4 million people are out of the workforce because of COVID-19, with around sixteen million working-age Americans facing long-term symptoms. Knowing this, it’s indefensible that Starbucks stopped requiring its partners to wear masks earlier this year.

Starbucks and Amazon making unilateral safety decisions that harm workers has been one of the primary motivators for the wave of union organizing we have seen since the start of the pandemic. Amazon Labor Union’s Chris Smalls helped kick off the national labor resurgence by leading a walk-out over the lack of COVID-19 protections at his warehouse. 

The first Starbucks Workers United strike was over COVID safety this January at the first unionized location in Buffalo, New York. Lead organizers Chris Smalls and Jaz Brisack from these locations have been retaliated against and forced out for helping start these movements.

Starbucks Workers United, our union, is fighting to not just keep our previous COVID-19 protections in place, but also to get them expanded to fully protect Starbucks partners. The only way we can protect ourselves as workers, during the pandemic and beyond, is through a union. 

Alisha Humphrey is a barista and organizer at the 63rd & Grand Starbucks in Oklahoma City.

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