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Starbucks Holds Life-Saving Benefits Over Trans Workers’ Heads

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Zane McNeill

OVERLAND PARK, KAN.—Maddie Doran worked at the Starbucks on 75th Street and Interstate 35 for 10 months, “not only to pay the bills,” she says, but because the company’s health insurance covers gender-affirming surgery. Many health plans exclude gender-affirming care, despite the fact that the medically necessary procedures can be lifesaving—Harvard research shows gender-affirming care can significantly reduce suicidal ideation, for example. 

And without Starbucks’ health plan, Doran’s facial feminization surgery would cost her $42,000.

But after Doran joined a union campaign at the store this winter, the benefit “was waved over my head” as an anti-union scare tactic, she says, with one store manager privately telling her, “You’re here for the gender-affirming surgeries and I’m worried about you [losing that benefit and] becoming the minority [in contract negotiations], because ultimately the union decides.”

An emailed statement from Starbucks to In These Times said that the company would “bargain in good faith” but could make no “guarantees about any benefits,” asserting that “even if we were to offer a certain benefit at the bargaining table, a union could decide to exchange it for something else.” 

Losing a benefit because of your union is extremely unlikely. As Katie Barrows, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, explains: “Employees form unions to improve their workplaces. Additionally, when employees organize, they are the union, which means they negotiate and vote to approve their union contract—union members are not going to vote for a contract that leaves them worse off.… I’ve only seen union contracts drastically improve workers’ pay, benefits and working conditions.” 

Before Doran could get the surgery, however, she lost the health coverage anyway. She and two other outspoken union supporters, Michael Vestigo and Alydia Claypool, were fired in the same week. The store accused Doran of stealing money; she denies the charge and believes the three were targeted as retaliation.

As a union organizing wave has pulled in more than 300 Starbucks stores so far, workers have alleged egregious union-busting tactics by the company, including intimidation, retaliatory firings and scheduling reductions. Interim CEO Howard Schultz announced in April that a new benefits expansion will exclude union stores.

In at least one other store, as reported in Bloomberg and Them, managers specifically threatened that unionizing could jeopardize health benefits for trans employees. These alleged threats prompted Workers United to file unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), on behalf of employees at Doran’s store and an Oklahoma City location.

Doran says her firing represents how gender-affirming healthcare can be used as a cudgel against unionization efforts. Retaliatory store closures or firings can especially hurt trans employees who rely on hard-to-find benefits. 

Doran and her coworkers publicly announced their union campaign in January and held a walk out and strike in March to protest unfair working conditions. At one point, Doran says, managers tried to throw employees off the grounds of a local hotel where they’d been called for a mandatory anti-union meeting. When a group of workers gathered outside after the meeting, Doran says, a Starbucks manager told them, “You all need to go,” and then complained to the hotel front desk, who said the police had been called.

Doran, Vestigo and Claypool all made pro-union statements in the media, and all were terminated in April. The NLRB filed a complaint against Starbucks in May, alleging the firings were retaliatory, and Claypool has since been reinstated. 

The union ballots came back a week after the three were fired. The vote was 6–1 in favor of a union, adding Overland Park to the more than 200 Starbucks locations that have unionized so far this year.

Transgender people are unemployed at a rate three times higher than the national average, according to a 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality study, and face a greater risk of underemployment and poverty than other workers. They are subject to higher rates of hiring bias, on-the job discrimination and firings, greater wage inequity and unequal access to healthcare.

While Starbucks’ 2018 rollout of transgender health benefits was celebrated by LGBTQ advocates and media platforms, some workers at individual stores have reported trans-discriminatory practices. In 2018, Maddie Wade, a transgender employee, sued Starbucks for discrimination, alleging her manager repeatedly misgendered her. In a 2020 survey by hospitality union Unite Here of workers at airport Starbucks stores, which are run by a subcontractor, at least four employees reported discrimination such as “offensive and transphobic comments from managers.” A 2020 BuzzFeed story details three workers at different Starbucks stores being outed, hitting snags accessing gender-affirming benefits and being deadnamed. 

“Starbucks will posture that they care about queer people,” says Doran, “and they will posture that they care about any minority group, but the second you try to have a democratic workplace or speak up for yourself or don’t let them bully you—suddenly you’re public enemy number one, and they completely shut you out.” 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Zane McNeill. Zane is the founder of Roots DEI Consulting and Policy and is comanager of the labor rights group Rights for Animal Rights Advocates.


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Working people are so screwed: Rents spike and minimum wage hits its lowest value since 1956

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Laura Clawson

The average wage needed for someone to afford a market-rate one-bedroom apartment rental in this country is $21.25 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. It’s not hard to see the problem here.

Both sides of the equation are responsible: The rent is too damn high and the pay is too damn low.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual report on housing costs, the market rate for a modest two-bedroom home requires an hourly wage of $25.82 for affordability, defined as 30% of income on housing costs. Across the entire country, “In approximately 9% of counties or county equivalents (including Puerto Rico), the renter wage is below the federal, state, or local minimum wage.” In the continental U.S., Arkansas is the winner, requiring just 1.4 full-time minimum wage jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

On the rent-is-too-damn-high front, “Across the country, rents rose 18% between the first quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. These rent increases have been widespread: out of 345 metropolitan counties, all but two have seen a rise in rental prices since 2021.” Those increases have hammered people who were barely making it month to month, already paying well over the 30% of income considered affordable for housing. Some interviewed in the NLIHC report are now paying 80% of their household income to remain housed.

Nationally, more than 40% of people are not paid enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and nearly 60% are not paid enough to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

The burden of high housing costs falls disproportionately on Black and Latino renters, the report notes: “White workers at the bottom of the white income distribution earn over one dollar more per hour than Black and Latino workers at the bottom of their respective income distributions. Among Black workers, a Black person at the 20th percentile of wages earns $2.30 less per hour than a white worker at the same percentile. A Latino worker at the 20th percentile of wages earns $2.05 less than a white worker at the same percentile.” 

On the pay-is-too-damn-low front, the minimum wage, which has not increased since 2009, is now worth less than at any time since 1956. The Economic Policy Institute’s Dave Kamper put that in context:

The United States must invest in affordable housing and rental assistance. It must increase the minimum wage—even in the states where it’s currently the highest. And that means Republicans cannot be allowed to keep standing in the way. 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura is assistant managing editor for Daily Kos.


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