Workers at Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York, are accusing the company of retaliating against union supporters by telling some of them they may have to leave the company if they cannot increase their work availability.
At least five of the cases have arisen at a store that unionized in December, though union supporters at other Buffalo-area stores report similar conversations with managers, frequently but not always involving pro-union employees. The company denies any connection between the scheduling issues and union activities and says the matter is strictly logistical.
The tensions indicate how labor relations are playing out after initial successes in unionizing company stores. None of Starbucks’s roughly 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the United States were unionized before early December in recent years, but three have unionized since then, and workers at more than 100 stores across the country have filed for union elections.
Seattle Starbucks were unionized in the early years, but the company has not had broad union representation in decades.
One of the Buffalo workers, Cassie Fleischer, said her manager told her Feb. 20 that she would soon no longer be employed at the store where she had worked since 2020 because she had sought to reduce her hours from around 30 to 15, a change the manager said she could not accommodate. The store was recently unionized, and Fleischer is a prominent union supporter.
Kellen Montanye, who works at the same store, said the manager told him in a meeting Sunday that he would have to decide this week if he could increase his availability to 15 or 20 hours or leave the company. Montanye was also outspoken in supporting the union.
“This new policy is a complete betrayal of the promise made by Starbucks to its partners, to schedule us around our other jobs or our school hours,” Starbucks Workers United, the union representing the workers, said in a statement, using the company’s term for its employees. “This is a part of Starbucks’ broader strategy to bust our union.”
News that the company was asking some employees to be available to work more hours or leave was reported earlier by the labor-oriented website More Perfect Union.
Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesperson, said that the company was not firing the workers and that there was no policy requiring minimum availability. The company generally tries to honor employees’ preferences on availability, he said, but it cannot guarantee that it will do so, especially when several employees request more limited availability around the same time.
Borges said that 10 people at Fleischer’s and Montanye’s store, on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, had made such requests recently, out of a total of about 27 workers there.
Union supporters said they had not previously faced resistance when making such requests.
Many union supporters were also skeptical that 10 workers at the Elmwood store had asked to scale back their hours in ways that posed an unusual challenge for management. A recording of a meeting between Fleischer and her manager, provided to a reporter by the union, seemed to indicate that the number was lower.
“There’s your shift and a couple other people that really, with the hours that I — I just, I don’t have the quite the availability,” the manager told Fleischer. If fewer workers had sought significant reductions in availability, that would presumably be easier to accommodate.
The manager appeared to acknowledge in the recording that the refusal to grant the reduction in hours was a break with her previous approach. “There’s certain things that I have to take care of as well, that maybe I didn’t do the right way before, but I have to get on board,” the manager said.
Montanye, a graduate student at the University at Buffalo, said that he had worked at Starbucks since 2018 and at the Elmwood store for roughly one year, and that he had frequently adjusted his hours. He said he typically worked nearly full time during winter and summer breaks and only one or two days a week while school was in session. His managers had never taken issue with these requests, he added.
But at an initial meeting Feb. 13, he said, his manager told him that his current schedule of one day a week no longer met the store’s “needs” and that he would have to provide 15 or 20 hours of weekly availability to stay on the schedule. At a follow-up meeting over the weekend, he said, the manager told him to decide this week whether he could provide the additional availability. He may seek a leave of absence instead.
Fleischer had worked at Starbucks for more than four years, and at the Elmwood store since the summer of 2020. She was typically scheduled for about 33 or 34 hours a week during the second half of last year. But she began looking for additional work elsewhere to cover expenses after her scheduled hours dropped somewhat in January.
She asked to scale back to 15 hours a week upon finding a second job, at which point her manager told her in an initial meeting in early February that the more limited availability didn’t meet the “needs of the business,” according to Fleischer.
In her final meeting with her manager, which Fleischer recorded on Feb. 20, the manager said that she had not put Fleischer on the schedule for the next two weeks and that, after a certain number of weeks of being unscheduled, Fleischer would be “termed out” — that is, no longer employed by Starbucks. She is scheduled to meet with her district manager to discuss the issue Mar. 7.
Fleischer said she would have been unlikely to look for a second job had her hours not dropped in January. Hours at Starbucks tend to fall somewhat during the slow months of January and February, but Fleischer and Montanye said they believed the changes were also driven by the addition of several new workers to the store in the fall.
The union has said the fall hiring was intended to dilute union support before an election at the store; the company has said the hiring was intended to address understaffing. Borges said that a similar number of workers had left the store since then and that hours had been fairly consistent.
An employee at another Starbucks in Buffalo, Roisin Doherty, said her store also cut back her hours.
In late January she too took another job, then informed her manager that she would need to change her availability to weekends only. Screenshots provided by Doherty show that the manager congratulated her through a messaging app and did not indicate that the new constraints would be a problem. But in early February the manager wrote that she would need “at least four days” of availability. Workers at her store filed for a union election in between the two exchanges, on Jan. 31, and Doherty has helped lead the union campaign, though she said another worker who is not identified with the union had also been told that his availability was insufficient.
Doherty said that she remained on the schedule and that she had yet to have a second interaction with a manager forcing the issue.
Borges said Doherty’s hours were reduced after she was given a written warning about tardiness and attendance issues.
Borges said managers would continue contacting employees when necessary to explain that narrow availability could lead them to go unscheduled for a few weeks, which could ultimately cause their separation from the company.
“Leaders are trying to make sure partners understand that the lack of availability could lead to that,” Borges said in an email.
Seattle Times staff contributed information about union history at Starbucks.