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The above pictured Starbucks employee is not associated with the current protest.

The only unionized Starbucks store staged a walkout over COVID safety issues

Workers at the recently unionized Buffalo, N.Y. Starbucks store walked out on Jan. 5 to protest unsafe working conditions

Starbucks workers at the only unionized Starbucks store in the country walked off the job Wednesday in Buffalo, N.Y. to protest alleged unsafe working conditions during the current wave of COVID-19 omicron cases.

According to the workers’ Go Fund Me page — which has raised half of its $10,000 goal — Elmwood workers are protesting health risks while working in understaffed conditions because multiple workers are sick or quarantining because of an exposure. The workers feel pressured by Starbucks corporate to go to work, despite health risks and are struggling to enforce mask mandates.

“We have COVID safety issues that were not being met by the company,” a Starbucks worker at the location said in a video shared on Twitter. “We raised issues with the company about our exposure rate […] They said under no uncertain terms that as long as there are enough employees to meet the needs of the business, then everything was being taken care of.”

The workers are asking Starbucks to close the store and only have workers return to work when it’s fully staffed and they feel they are better able to handle health and safety concerns.

Starbucks said that corporate moved stores in the Buffalo region to a grab and go model on Monday before the protest in response to growing COVID positivity rates in the region, a policy that has been in place for a while and is currently being explored in other regions, like Boston. That day, corporate met with the Elmwood employees over Zoom to reiterate policies and answer questions about isolation and face coverings.

On Wednesday, as several employees picketed during store operating hours, Starbucks made the decision to temporarily close the Elmwood store, but there is no status update on if the store has reopened

“We’ve had these policies in place for the last two years,” Starbucks director of communications, Reggie Borges, said. “Every partner that comes into our store has to pass a checklist: temperature check and if you came in contact [with someone that has COVID]. If they don’t pass that test, they’re told to isolate, and we have two levels of isolation pay.”

Borges said that they “go above and beyond just a positive COVID test” to tell the sick partner to immediately isolate and tell their coworkers that came in contact with them to go home as well.

“They’re choosing to walk out and strike instead of working and that’s their choice,” Borges said.

This is the first time these workers have protested working conditions since the store became the first and only unionized Starbucks last month, following a contentious National Labor Relations Board election involving three Buffalo, N.Y.-area stores, where one location voted in favor of unionizing and became the only current unionized Starbucks store in the country, one voted against unionization and the results of the third store’s election remain up in the air as multiple votes are being contested.

Since then, several Starbucks locations in multiple regions have followed suit and filed for union elections.

Contact Joanna at [email protected]

Find her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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