Workers at the country’s first unionized Starbucks store in Buffalo staged a walkout on Wednesday to protest what they described as “unsafe working conditions” due to an ongoing COVID-19 case surge.
Starbucks Workers United walked out just weeks after employees at the Elmwood Avenue store voted to form the union. In a lengthy statement to The Post, union representatives said the Elmwood partners — Starbucks’ name for employees — lack the resources they need to stay safe as the Omicron variant rages in the region.
“We, the Elmwood partners, do not feel safe in our store—we were not given the staffing or resources to do our jobs safely due to health concerns and surging COVID cases,” Starbucks Workers United said in the statement. “We’re upset it came to this but we deserve to be safe at work.”
Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told The Post some employees opted to stay on site, but the Elmwood store closed for at least Wednesday following the walkout. He pushed back on the union’s claims, noting the company closed cafes to customers and shifted to “grab-and-go” orders only due to an uptick in cases in the Buffalo market.
The spokesperson insisted that workers were not pressured to work at any point. He said employees are encouraged to self-report symptoms or potential COVID-19 exposures and stay home if necessary.
“Throughout the pandemic we have met and exceeded all CDC and expert guidelines for safety, and we’ve supported partners with vaccine pay, sick days and isolation-pay,” Starbucks said in a statement. “Over and above that, all leaders are empowered to make whatever changes make sense for their neighborhood which includes shortening store hours or moving to 100% take-out only, which is the case in Buffalo.”
Earlier this week, Starbucks informed employees they must be fully vaccinated by early February or submit to weekly testing. The announcement followed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s directive that large employers had until Feb. 9 to implement the requirement.
The walkout occurred as various industries contend with staffing shortages due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. The US reported more than one million new cases on Monday, setting a global record.
The Elmwood workers said they are “pressure to go to work is being put on us” by Starbucks. Union representatives said they met with Starbucks officials on Tuesday to address concerns about “understaffing and unsafe protocols.”
“The company has again shown that they continue to put profits above people. Everyone deserves the right to feel safe in Starbucks stores—both customers and partners,” the group said.
“We will return to work when we feel our store is fully staffed and conditions are safe. We hope to be able to safely return by Monday, when isolating partners are expected to come back to work,” the statement added.
The National Labor Relations Board certified the workers’ vote in favor of unionization last month, establishing the Elmwood Starbucks location as the first company-owned store in the US to unionize. Votes at two other Buffalo-area locations fell short.
Starbucks opposed the effort, which received support from national political figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
AFL-CIO President Liz Schuler expressed solidarity with the walkout.
“Today, the courageous @SBWorkersUnited in Elmwood are walking off the job,” Schuler wrote on Twitter. “They’re asking @Starbucks for safe working conditions – and we’re with them all the way.”
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