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Starbucks worker says he was fired for union organizing and 'to create fear'

Michael Sainato
Photograph: Joe Skipper / Reuters/Reuters

Gabriel Ocasio Mejias worked as a barista at Starbucks in Orlando international airport for two years before he was fired on 18 February, shortly after he emerged as one of the leading organizers to unionize his co-workers with labor union Unite Here.

“I was fired three hours after another union organizer was fired,” Mejias told the Guardian. “They took me to the back of the food court, in a dimly lit area, and a manager fired me over a third write-up for drinking water. That was their way to get rid of me, for drinking water, because they know I was one of the strongest organizers. They targeted me specifically to create fear for my co-workers of joining the union.”

Starbucks did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

Mejias’s comments come as a new report from Unite Here found significant issues for some Starbucks workers employed by HMS Host, an airport and highway food service company that has maintained exclusive rights to operate Starbucks stores in airports throughout North America until earlier this month, when both companies announced the exclusivity deal would end.

The Unite Here report found that pay for black Starbucks workers was $1.85 less than white Starbucks workers, based on data taken from HMS Host locations between February and December 2019. Though more than 8,000 US Starbucks locations closed in May 2018 for racial bias training following an incident at a Philadelphia based Starbucks location, none of the HMS Host-operated Starbucks participated, according to the report.

Among the Starbucks employees employed by HMS Host at 29 US airports surveyed, 32% of workers reported being unable to pay their rent in the past year and 17% of workers surveyed rely on food assistance. Workers also reported several cases of LGBTQ+ discrimination, and one in four immigrant workers reported being told not to speak their preferred language at work. A memo included in the report from HMS Host outlines company policy where workers are mandated to only speak English, including in communication with other associates or when using a business or personal phone within proximity of other associates or customers.

HMS Host denied firing workers for union activity, but declined to comment on specific personnel issues citing privacy concerns. HMS Host also denied the allegations of discrimination and findings of the report.

“Unite Here continues to spread false information about HMS Host with the sole objective of exerting pressure and gaining leverage,” said an HMS Host spokesperson in an email.

In the wake of releasing the report this week, Unite Here plans to distribute leaflets at over 700 Starbucks locations in 40 cities around the US, calling on Starbucks to address issues of discrimination and inequity at its locations managed by HMS Host.

Starbucks has a long history of opposing unionization at its stores, and Mejias explained that although Starbucks touts a legacy of LGBTQ+ inclusion, he became involved in the union organizing drive due to discrimination issues he experienced while working at Starbucks. These include being told by management he was not allowed to wear makeup, though female co-workers were allowed to do so, and that management frequently made homophobic comments.

“They made me feel like I had to go back into the closet while I’m at work,” Mejias added.

While working at Starbucks, Mejias made $10.25 an hour, and had to work a second job at an athletic club to make ends meet. Unable to afford the health insurance offered to him as an employee, his mother sent medication from Puerto Rico to him for his epilepsy. He moved to Orlando from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

Mejias and another co-worker, Jay Kelly, a trans man, have filed complaints with the City of Orlando under the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.

“As I changed my name and started to grow facial hair, managers would still call me by my deadname or refer to me as ‘she’,” said Kelly, a barista at Starbucks in Orlando international airport for three years. He said his deadname is still used in scheduling, and managers have continued to misgender him.

Kelly also explained the wages are too low to live on, at just a little over $10 an hour.

“If I don’t have enough money to pay bills, I have to go to payday loans to get money to feed my nieces and nephews, or sometimes I feed them and not feed myself and go without eating,” Kelly added.

Since the union organizing drive began, Kelly said management has held several mandatory meetings with workers to discourage union membership.

Grayson Landauer, a Starbucks lead barista at Denver international airport for nine months, is also union organizing with co-workers in response to discrimination they have experienced on the job.

“HMS Host has treated workers with so much disrespect, in their attitude and in pay and benefits,” said Landauer. “I’ve been union organizing here because I think it’s time for a change. The management in Denver has responded by trying to intimidate workers about the union, scaring them about dues, and trying to discourage us all.”