Some workers at the Starbucks stores closing due to 'challenging incidents' described cleaning up blood and needles but others said the safety issue is overblown
- Starbucks announced in July it is closing 16 stores across the US because a high rate of "challenging incidents" makes them unsafe.
- Insider spoke to six workers at four of the closing stores to hear how safe workers really felt on the job.
Starbucks announced in early July plans to permanently close 16 locations across Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and other cities by the end of the month because of a "high volume of challenging incidents that make it unsafe to continue to operate."
Workers, however, seem to be split on whether safety was a huge concern at the stores. Insider spoke to six workers at four of the 16 closing stores about their experiences. While some said that they've witnessed overdoses and seen evidence of drug use in stores, others said the disturbances were never more serious than a stolen tip jar.
Workers describe 'trauma' on the job
A Philadelphia Starbucks employee described an unsafe and difficult workplace. The worker — who asked to remain anonymous due to not being authorized to speak publicly — has worked at multiple locations, including the store on 10th and Chestnut that is slated to close. He called that location "the worst one to work in," in the city.
He said he cleaned up needles and blood regularly, and at times the store had to assign one worker to act as a bouncer and ask disruptive patrons to leave over fears that fights could break out.
At the East Olive Starbucks in Seattle, a worker who asked to remain anonymous due to not being authorized to speak publicly and left the store about a year ago told Insider that he saw people overdose in the bathroom and be revived with Narcan. Though this only happened twice in his five-year tenure, both pre-pandemic, it was "traumatic," he said.
"While I was there we had no training in how to handle patrons, paying or otherwise, who were having any sort of mental health or drug crisis," putting workers in dangerous situations.
Starbucks has since said it will implement more training for workers, including conflict de-escalation and active shooter drills, Fortune reported.
Some workers say safety concerns are overblown
Other Starbucks workers acknowledged minor disturbances but said they didn't escalate to a reason to close stores.
"I'm not going to pretend we don't have safety incidents, we're in a pretty underprivileged neighborhood. That comes with problems," Cat Ureta, another worker at the closing East Olive Way Starbucks in Seattle, told Insider.
These problems almost never involve harm to customers or employees, Ureta said. The location was part of a pilot program employing a security guard, primarily because of people stealing from the tip jar, which led to escalation when the jar was switched to a different design that made it more difficult to steal from.
"No one ever got hurt. It was just a lot of noise and a lot of show," Ureta said.
Some contend that the conditions at the closing stores aren't notably worse than other stores that are permitted to stay open.
"We're not an outlier, especially in a big city," Union Station Seattle worker Lily Harvey told Insider, based on her visits to other locations and conversations with employees at other stores.
When incidents do occur, Harvey said that there is security in the building and transit security outside that she can call.
The Union Station store doesn't have public bathrooms, which are the site of many complaints about safety and hygiene at other locations. Starbucks workers in Seattle have previously told Insider in 2018 that they had to dispose of hypodermic needles from restrooms nearly every day, and at least two were stuck with needles.
Mari Cosgrove, another worker at the Union Station location, says she's been shouted at, but never felt unsafe.
"Corporate conflates discomfort with being unsafe," she told Insider. "I can't remember the last time I filled out an incident report."
The height of incidents occurred earlier in the pandemic, Cosgrove told Insider, when masking was contentious and customers would sometimes become angry about the policy. At that point, she says she filled up to one incident report a day.
A barista at the 4th and Morrison location in Portland, which is also closing, told Insider he hasn't "had a customer or other interaction that made me feel unsafe," since he was hired, Though not privy to the decision making, he suspects it was chosen to close in part because it had consistent property damage.
"We get a window smashed probably once every six months," he said and noted that both bathroom mirrors have been broken in the past.
Coming soon: more closures
When approached for comment on its employees' statements, Starbucks directed Insider to a letter from VPs Debbie Stroud and Denise Nelsen on safety published on the company's website on July 11, which states: "We want you to know that creating a safe, welcoming, and kind third place is our top priority."
Starbucks union organizers say the closures are an excuse to shut down recently unionized stores. Two of the 16 closing stores had voted to unionize at the time the closures were announced while the one in Portland had a petition to unionize.
"Every decision Starbucks makes must be viewed through the lens of the company's unprecedented and virulent union-busting campaign," Starbucks Workers United, which represents Starbucks workers who have voted to unionize, previously told Insider in a statement.
Starbucks denies the union's accusations and insists it is focusing on safety.
"Claims of union busting are false. We regularly open and close stores as a standard part of our business operations," a spokesperson told Insider. "We apply the same focus on safety at unionized and non-union stores and are closing non-union stores where we are similarly challenged in providing a safe environment for our customer and partner experience."
More stores will close in the future, CEO Howard Schultz said in leaked footage Starbucks confirmed as authentic.
"This is just the beginning. There are going to be many more," he said.
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