Starbucks stores are reopening, but fearful employees say they’d rather collect unemployment than risk their health returning to work — except they can’t

Starbucks coronavirusAlexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

  • Beginning Monday, the company plans to re-open stores closed due to the pandemic, though the operations at all stores will be modified to protect Starbucks employees and customers, a spokesperson for the company told Business Insider.
  • Starbucks employees who spoke with Business Insider said they feel the decision to re-open stores and end catastrophe pay is premature and puts their health at risk.
  • Employees who don’t feel safe returning stressed they can’t receive unemployment benefits because they are voluntarily choosing to stay home and haven’t been fired. 
  • “It takes pretty extreme situations to be fired [from Starbucks], and I have never heard of anyone being laid off,” an employee told Business Insider. “I’m going to be forced to quit at that point, and I don’t believe that I will be able to get unemployment at that point either.”
  • A Starbucks spokesperson told Business Insider, “In no way, shape, or form are we saying we aren’t going to let a partner go if that partner doesn’t want to work. We want to do what’s best for those partners and want to explore all the options that work best for them.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Starbucks on Sunday ended catastrophe pay for most of its workers and begin to re-open stores it had closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Starbucks employees who spoke with Business Insider said they fear it’s too soon for Starbucks to ask its workforce to return to stores and end catastrophe pay for workers who feel unsafe going back to work.

As Business Insider previously reported, the company plans to open 90% of its stores by June 1. Most locations will not allow customers inside, with customers picking up their orders at the door, at drive-thrus, or via delivery. The locations that allow customers inside will remove all furniture and mandate customers to practice social distancing while picking up their orders, the company said. 

On March 20, the company announced locations without drive-thrus would temporarily close. At the time, Starbucks began offering “catastrophe pay,” which allowed employees — called “partners” — unable or unwilling to work to continue receiving their pay and benefits during the pandemic.  

While catastrophe pay ended for most employees Sunday, it continues to be available to certain Starbucks workers, including those who test positive for COVID-19, “those partners whom the CDC has identified as at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, or partners who live with a health care worker who works with COVID-19 patients,” according to a letter written by Rossann Williams, the company’s North American president.

Williams said the company would similarly provide catastrophe pay throughout the month of May for employees “navigating childcare challenges.”

“There will be some partners who just aren’t ready to return to a service role,” Williams wrote in the April 16 letter to partners. “So, we must show our genuine empathy for those who need to make the personal decision to leave Starbucks. We will always be grateful for their service to our company and we will support them the best way we can as they make personal decisions to care for themselves.”

Starbucks workers who spoke to Business Insider described the decision to end catastrophe pay and re-open stores as premature

Ashley Krug, a Starbucks barista who works at a store in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, told Business Insider her Starbucks location closed not long after catastrophe pay was instituted because most of her coworkers felt unsafe continuing to work amid the pandemic — even after her cafe transitioned to drive-thru only. Her location is re-opening on Monday, she told Insider.

Krug, 27, said she’s the primary caretaker for her 75-year-old grandmother — “nana” — who has stage four Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which causes an obstruction of airflow into her lungs. COPD also puts her grandmother at high risk for the most severe symptoms of the highly contagious disease, including death

“This is the only place I have to stay,” Krug told Business Insider of the home she shares with her grandmother, adding that she feels “even bumping elbows with my coworkers” would put her “vulnerable” grandmother at risk if she returned to work. 

“No matter how much I showered or how much I bleached, when I came home, I couldn’t escape that inevitable feeling that I could have been exposed to someone,” she added of the final days she worked at her Starbucks store in March. 

A spokesperson for the company, Reggie Borges, told Business Insider, “Partner and customer health and safety are our top priorities.”

“So if at any moment there’s a situation where we don’t feel like we can manage that, we’ll close the stores,” he said. 

Borges pointed to a series of changes in Starbucks stores as part of its “modify and adapt” plan to re-open closed company-owned Starbucks locations, and keep its workers and customers safe. Modifications include mandated facial coverings for partners, installed plexiglass at drive-thru windows, and “wellness checks” for employees before every shift.

While Borges stressed the company was keeping lobbies at all company-owned locations closed to protect its partners and customers, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said Sunday in an interview with Yahoo News it would consider opening cafes to “limited seating” in  “communities where we see the number of COVID cases continue to decline.”

Borges told Business Insider Sunday that Johnson was speaking about decisions that could be made “down the road” and said all lobbies would remain closed for the time being.   

Despite changes implemented by the company to protect workers and customers amid its re-opening, Krug said she doesn’t know if she’d be able to shake anxieties that she could infect her grandmother if she returned to work.

Krug said her manager told her she would not qualify for continued catastrophe pay after May 3 if she chose not to return to work, despite living with someone who the CDC has identified as at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. She was told the best the company could offer her was a 30-day unpaid leave, protecting her employment with the company should she decide she’s comfortable to return to work in June. She’s not sure she will be.

“That’s great because that gives me job security, but what if the situation hasn’t cleared, and I’m not comfortable or able to do that?” Krug said.

“I would rather be able to collect unemployment.”

Veronica, 21, who works at a Starbucks location in California and asked only her first name be used out of fear of “retaliation,” told Business Insider she moved back into her family home at the start of the pandemic under one condition from her family:  she had to stop leaving the house, which included going to work at Starbucks.

While Veronica said she initially understood the company’s decision to require her to return to work, she disagreed with Starbucks’ decision to end catastrophe pay when her county became one of a handful in California to extend a stay-at-home order through the end of May.

Veronica, who lives with her father, stepmom, her grandmother, and two younger siblings, said she told her manager she “would not be able to return to work until my county lifted the shelter-in-place.”

“I was still scheduled for work even though the shelter-in-place had not been lifted. I let her know that I wouldn’t be able to return to work, and she told me there would be no way I could qualify for catastrophe pay unless I was homeschooling a child, or unless I lived in a house with a healthcare worker that was in direct contact with COVID-19 patients,” Veronica told Business Insider.

Like Krug, Veronica said she was told her best bet was the 30-day leave from the company.

Her store manager also recommended she apply for the Starbucks CUP Fund, an employee-funded program that offers grants to Starbucks partners in need, she said. The maximum amount currently awarded through this program is $500 — a payout far less than the money she’d typically earn during a month working at her cafe, she noted.

Veronica said her manager had initially proposed she use either sick or vacation leave to remain at home if she was uncomfortable going into work, though, she said, her manager later told her she wouldn’t be able to use her sick paid leave to stay home — a contradiction to what employees had been told via letter last month.

Starbucks employees who remain uncomfortable working at a cafe after May 3 “will have the option to utilize their remaining vacation or sick leave, apply for unpaid leave, or evaluate eligibility for assistance based on the CARES Act (or any state mandates),” read the letter from the Starbucks’ North American president.

“I would rather be able to collect unemployment and comply with and protect the needs of my family,” Veronica said.

As Business Insider previously reported, some people are earning more while collecting unemployment — the result of a temporary federal $600 weekly boost set to expire in July — than they were at their jobs. Meanwhile, others who are currently employed during the pandemic have argued the system is unfair and have asked employers to lay them off so they can collect unemployment.

“It was just like ‘well, get back to work or don’t eat.'” 

While some employees who have been mandated to take unpaid leave — and were not laid off during the pandemic— can still qualify for unemployment benefits, unemployment eligibility requires that an employer offered zero hours for an employee to work. 

When asked whether the company would consider firing or laying off partners so they could apply for unemployment benefits, Borges told Business Insider the company would consider doing so. None of the Starbucks employees who spoke with Business Insider said this was presented as a possibility. 

“I think we’re working with every single partner who has issues and concerns and we will find different ways to support them,” Borges said. “In no way, shape, or form are we saying we aren’t going to let a partner go if that partner doesn’t want to work. We want to do what’s best for those partners and want to explore all the options that work best for them.”

He added: “Whatever that partner wants to do. We want to explore any or all of the options.” 

Veronica said she was told by her manager she was ineligible for unemployment while on her 30-day leave from the company.

“It’s unpaid leave, and because it’s voluntary I do not qualify for any unemployment,” Veronica said. “When I talked to my district manager, he said that the company is not laying people off because they are allowing people back to work, so they don’t have a reason to lay people off. But that leaves me still having to contribute to my household — to feed everyone — and I still have bills that aren’t stopping. I don’t have an income.”

Krug agreed that termination from Starbucks could help her collect unemployment benefits and protect her grandmother, but she doesn’t think it’s likely.  

“It takes pretty extreme situations to be fired [from Starbucks], and I have never heard of anyone being laid off,” she said. “I’m going to be forced to quit at that point, and I don’t believe that I will be able to get unemployment at that point either.”

Kevin Martin, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks store in New Hampshire told Business Insider he felt the company’s messaging to employees has been unclear. 

“I think it’s just requiring us to put our lives in danger for something as silly as just coffee, and the people who create these rules have the luxury of being able to work from home and not be in close proximity of hundreds of people a day,” he told Business Insider.

“Usually, we find out pretty last minute regarding new policies, and especially in a time like this, you’d think they’d be giving us much more consistent updates,” said Martin, who says he’s worked with the company for over two years. 

Borges stressed that Starbucks let partners know it was expecting them to return to work and was ending catastrophe pay on April 16 — nearly two weeks before they would be expected to return.

“Some of my coworkers have told me they are hesitantly going back because they really don’t want to, but they needed the benefits provided by Starbucks,” Martin said, adding that he believed was “privileged” to be able to make the decision to remain on unpaid leave from the company.

He added: “It’s tough because I know other people I work with are going to be seriously affected and would hate to see something happen to any of them or their family members because they’re now being forced to be exposed to the general public.”

Krug agreed the response from the company to the pandemic had been a bit puzzling. 

“It’s been very confusing and I do feel like the statement the company put out at first was kind and reassuring, but I think it just helped them save face because eventually, it was just like ‘well, get back to work or don’t eat.'” 

Starbucks employees want to get back to work  — when they feel it’s safe to do so

“We’ve all been home for a month,” a barista who works at a Starbucks location in Vermont and asked to remain anonymous in fear of “definitely put a target on my back,” told Business Insider. “It’s not that we don’t want to work. There’s a huge population of Starbucks workers who are getting a little stir crazy — who want something to do. None of my coworkers are like ‘we don’t want to work.’ We want to work. We don’t want to just be opening because our company is just trying to turn a profit, which it does feel like that.” 

Most of the workers at her store signed a letter addressed to their district and store manager saying they would not return to work on May 6, which was the planned re-opening date for their location. They said they would not consider returning to work until at least May 15, when the stay-at-home order in Vermont is lifted. 

On Saturday, the US faced its single deadliest day so far amid the pandemic, as businesses including Starbucks begin to re-open stores and states across the country relax stay-at-home orders, even as death tolls continue to rise from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Currently, Starbucks plans to phase out catastrophe pay in June when the company expects to “return to [its] normal operations, pay, and benefits,” according to Williams’ April 16 letter. “Service Pay,” which gives a temporary $3 an hour raise to Starbucks partners who work during the pandemic, will also end in June.

Krug doesn’t know if she will feel safe enough to return to work after her leave ends.

“I do feel like I made the right decision to protect my nana, and I’m glad the company was there to support me with that at first, but now, unless some kind of miracle happens within the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be losing my job.” 

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