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Staffing shortages and little training spurred Biddeford Starbucks workers to start union drive

FILE - Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a union-election watch party on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y.
Joshua Bessex
FILE - Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a union-election watch party on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y.

Ash Macomber had just started as a shift supervisor at the Biddeford Starbucks store on Alfred Street when the pandemic began.

Starbucks offered employees who had been exposed to COVID a week of “catastrophe pay,” but it wasn’t enough to cover the time they were out sick, said Macomber, 27, who has worked for the company for four years.

Customers frequently came in without masks, despite store workers asking them to wear face coverings. A timer went off every 10 minutes to remind workers to wash their hands, but they weren’t allowed to take time off when they got sick because of staffing shortages.

High turnover meant the store was frequently understaffed and unequipped to handle the high volume of customers, especially as vacationers flocked to southern Maine in the summer.

“That’s when I started to feel like Starbucks didn’t really care about us anymore as partners, as they like to call us,” Macomber said. “I definitely wasn’t the only one that felt that way.”

She reached out in late April to Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union. Less than a month later, on May 13, Macomber and her store partners announced their intent to unionize the Alfred Street store, becoming the first Starbucks location in Maine to do so. They joined hundreds of other Starbucks stores across the country that have sought union representation since last summer.

Some 330 Starbucks stores across the U.S. have filed for union elections since August, most of them with Workers United, according to Union Elections, a website run by Miami University professor Kevin Reuning, who tracks National Labor Relations Board filings.

This isn’t the first time in the chain’s history that Starbucks workers have tried to unionize.

United Food and Commercial Workers represented some Seattle Starbucks staff until 1992 and the Industrial Workers of the World tried to unionize stores in Chicago and New York in the mid-2000s, but those efforts, along with an effort to organize a Philadelphia store in 2019, foundered until last December, when a Buffalo, New York, store became the first in the country to unionize with Workers United.

The National Labor Relations Board will send out ballots to Biddeford employees for an election later this month and count the votes on July 13, according to barista Kaylee Makara, 21.

The Biddeford employees’ decision to unionize came from their frustration with Starbucks’ response to their concerns about staffing shortages and little training, and after seeing a wave of stores follow in Buffalo’s footsteps, according to Macomber, Makara and shift supervisor Preslee Jennings, 21.

“When we tell them what we need to make our stores run better and more efficiently, and [make] the partners and the customers be happier, they’re just like, ‘Well, figure it out, I guess,’” she said. “You can see that everyone was fed up, and everyone was exhausted and tired. And we didn’t feel like anything was changing.”

A Starbucks spokesperson said that the coffee chain was experiencing labor shortages like most of the retail sector, and that the company was “empowering” its local store leaders to change store hours to reflect understaffing.

The company hired 70 specialists to strategize how Starbucks would meet its goal of hiring 5,000 new workers per week, the spokesperson, Abigail Barker, said.

New partners, as the coffee chain calls its workers, were given little training and expected to perform the duties of five people, making coffee drinks, manning the drive-through window, fulfilling mobile orders and arranging orders for Uber Eats delivery drivers to pick up, Macomber said.

“It’s really hard to do our jobs and lead the store and also have partners that really need help and guidance, and [do] all these different things at the same time,” she said. “I feel like new partners are just kind of thrown into it, and they’re expected to swim or drown.”

The workers’ inadequate support reflected a “disconnect” between what customers expected and what partners were actually able to provide, Jennings said.

“There’s a lot of expectations put on you,” Makara said. “You have to connect with people, but also be really quick. You have to make drinks very quickly, [even when] it’s impossible when the espresso shots take so long to pool.”

Still, none of the Biddeford employees participating in the union drive are anti-Starbucks, the three employees said.

“We want our voices to be heard more than anything, and that’s why we’re unionizing,” Macomber said.

Both the store manager and the district manager have been supportive, and they’ve heard from employees at three or four other Maine Starbucks stores who are interested in unionizing, Macomber said.

Customers have also been supportive. On the day the employees went public with their drive, customers drove through the drive-through window to express their good wishes and came to the store lobby to cheer on workers, Jennings said.

In the short time since they’ve gone public with their union drive, management has appeared to be more responsive to their concerns, Macomber, Makara and Jennings said.

“I am excited to be a part of this and watch us all grow together over time,” Macomber said.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.