Starbucks union campaign boosted by barista burnout over mobile orders

NEW YORK / SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 9 (Reuters) – Starbucks Corp (SBUX.O) baristas who are leading a union campaign in Buffalo, New York, say they are organizing in part to have more say over the workload created by the company’s mobile app, which has forced them to struggle to keep up with increases in orders for $ 6 Frappuccinos and other personalized coffee drinks.

On Thursday, the National Labor Relations Board will count the ballots of employees at three stores in the region. Baristas and shift supervisors are looking to join Workers United, a branch of the Service Employees International Union. They need a simple majority of the votes cast for every store to win at this location.

The pandemic has created an increase in mobile orders at Starbucks and other restaurant chains. Baristas in Buffalo and elsewhere are complaining about not being able to limit the number of mobile orders per hour, resulting in unexpected increases that they are struggling to meet.

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Individual stores can completely disable mobile orders for their locations temporarily, but this requires approval from a manager, the company confirmed, and customers can then order from other nearby locations.

Baristas said this added to the burden on those other stores, but the company said such changes don’t necessarily lead to spillovers at other stores.

The union election involves around 100 workers in total, a tiny fraction of the roughly 220,000 employees of Seattle-based Starbucks American coffee shops. But a win at Buffalo could catch fire, as baristas who have also complained about staff shortages and little control over working conditions are given more power in a tight labor market.

Since the Buffalo campaign was announced in August, three other nearby locations and a store as far away as Arizona have sought to follow its lead.

“We respect the ongoing process and regardless of any outcome of this election, we will continue to stand by our mission and values,” Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson told employees in a letter on Tuesday.

Employees who spoke to Reuters said they wanted higher wages, seniority pay and better staffing levels. But exhaustion from mobile controls and frustration with other technological systems was a major driver of the campaign, interviews with five workers suggest.

“The technology was designed for customers and not for employees,” said Casey Moore, a barista at one of the Starbucks stores whose votes are counted Thursday. “Without a union, we haven’t been able to articulate how technology might work for us as well.”

A Starbucks spokesperson said the company is constantly updating its app based on employee and customer feedback.


Moore and other employees interviewed by Reuters said they are not opposed to the technology in principle, but are more interested in having a say in how it is developed and deployed in stores.

When Starbucks launched seasonal holiday drinks and handed out free cups in November, the mobile ordering system was so inundated with orders at a Buffalo-area store that staff were up to 40 minutes late and have discarded at least 30 abandoned drinks by customers, said James Skretta, a barista there.

The chain has approximately 20 stores in and around Buffalo. It launched its app in 2009, but added new ways to pay and earn points in 2020 as rewards subscriptions skyrocketed during the pandemic.

The mobile ordering app “has completely changed what it means to be a barista,” said Danka Dragic, shift supervisor at a Buffalo-area store.

Starbucks baristas aren’t the only ones to balk at high-tech store makeovers. According to media reports, five employees at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc (CMG.N) site in Austin, Texas have quit after being inundated with mobile orders.

Walmart Inc (WMT.N) in June rolled out an app that it said allows employees to perform various tasks from their phones, but labor rights activists have warned that the technology could open the door to stricter productivity quotas.

A Walmart spokesperson said the app makes some aspects of the job easier, including scheduling, clocking in and communication for employees.

“Workers in all industries are challenging the introduction of punitive technologies into the workplace,” Bianca Agustin, director of corporate responsibility at the nonprofit United for Respect, said in a statement.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has fought to ensure that sensors and other technology installed in United Parcel Service Inc’s (UPS.N) trucks are not used to punish drivers, and hospitality union UNITE HERE has is pushing for technology to strengthen worker protection, including safety buttons. for hotel cleaners.

Starbucks baristas also fret about a performance management program that assesses their customer service, especially because they’re under pressure from other technologies that track how quickly they process steering wheel controls.

“It’s like making drinks under pressure trying to defuse a time bomb,” Skretta said.

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Reporting by Hilary Russ in New York and Julia Love in San Francisco Editing by Vanessa O’Connell and Matthew Lewis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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