Ithaca Voice freelancer Syd Pierre contributed reporting to this article.

ITHACA, N.Y.—This past Saturday, July 30, workers at the Starbucks Commons location went on strike in an effort to raise awareness of the short staffing and other stressors being put on workers. Those stressors, like hours changes, staffing limitations and more, are being purposefully inflicted, workers say, to bust the unions they overwhelmingly voted to create in April.

Employees working the floor on Saturday, including Virgil Taylor who has been working at Starbucks since October 2021, had walked out and picked up signs with messages like “union busting is disgusting” scrawled on them. Taylor quit after the strike ended.

In the view of the striking workers, the short-staffing and shortened hours of operation at the store are entirely preventable.

“It’s untenable, it’s unsustainable, it’s unhealthy and it’s unsafe,” Caroline Feindel, another worker at the Commons location, said, noting that the customer volume hasn’t decreased.

In her eight years at the location, Feindel said that the conditions had never been as bad as they have been since unionizing in April.

“We want our store back,” she said.

An onslaught of activism has followed in the months since the successful unionization of the Ithaca Starbucks locations became official in April 2022. The enthusiasm those victories generated among workers was short-lived, as Starbucks announced just weeks later that the Collegetown location, likely the busiest of the three stores in Ithaca, would be closed permanently with only one week’s notice.

The closure, workers have claimed, was in retaliation to the unionization, something former worker Steph Hawkins was quick to point out as an “inherently American” system. Hawkins recently decided to leave the company at the end of July.

Feindel said that the compounding stress of working with skeleton crews and its impact on her mental and physical health has led her to take a month of leave starting at the end of July.

“All of this is intentional, and we know it’s intentional, because [the downtown Starbucks location] has specifically been refusing to accept transfers from other stores,” she said.  

Though the two remaining Ithaca stores have varying hours at the moment, they have faced issues of their own: drastically reduced operating hours, allegedly intentional short-staffing in an attempt to union bust and other issues that end up putting pressure on the employees who are working the floor.

In early June, the Commons location faced a reduction in operating hours, changing its schedule to open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 2 p.m. instead of remaining open throughout the evening as it had previously. Coincidentally, this happened right after the prior Collegetown manager had been transferred to the Commons store, according to workers.

According to Feindel, the Commons store is going to reduce its hours even further to begin closing at noon.

Currently, the South Meadow location that opened in the early spring also closes at 2 p.m.

Virgil Taylor said that when he started last October, he was getting between 20 and 30 hours a week. After the union went live in April and he asked for 20 to 25 hours a week, he started getting between 12 and 18 weekly instead. Since the base rate of pay for Starbucks baristas is $15.97, Taylor was barely making enough to live on — sometimes just $75 a week when he was only given four hours.

Because of the under-scheduling, the store has been forced to run on a skeleton crew of two to three people, when the customer volume would need five to function properly, according to workers at the stores.

“They’re not scheduled for the full day, because that would just be an eight-hour shift,” Taylor said. “And that’s what Starbucks doesn’t want to give us. They say it’s because of a lack of labor hours. I find that incredibly dubious, especially considering the Collegetown shutdown. We can’t exactly get more, we’re more busy than ever. And even then, we can’t exactly gain more labor hours, if our hours are 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.”

Taylor also said that, when the labor hours were cut, he ended up having to choose between food and being able to pay his rent, even after trying to communicate with his managers about his income-adjusted rent. 

“It got to the point where, due to me not being able to get food regularly because, at that point, I was relying on Starbucks food and I’d run out of food in my apartment, I ended up passing out in my apartment building’s exercise room,” he said.

Taylor’s story isn’t the only one that demonstrates increased stress on the retail operation’s employees.

Hawkins had applied for a medical leave of absence due to the increasingly stressful working conditions that Starbucks corporate was creating that culminated in a particular incident that occurred over Cornell University’s commencement weekend at the end of May — one of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s busiest weekends in terms of tourism to the area.

Hawkins had been working a shift with a three-person skeleton crew, including Taylor, at the Commons location, and after hours of never-ending lines, the store had sold out of some items. Hawkins said that most customers were understanding and patient with the struggling skeleton crew, but one customer had made a scene, yelling and cursing at workers while recording them on his iPad when they told him they couldn’t fill his black coffee all the way and offered to substitute something else free of charge.

The exhausted crew had no choice but to close the store to restock, brew more coffee and attempt to get in touch with their shift manager, who hadn’t been answering the phone.

“If you go into Starbucks on any given day, we are absolutely floundering,” Taylor said. “We’re probably behind on drinks and food — just trying to run around and do as best as we can.”

The leave of absence (LOA) Hawkins applied for after that highlighly stressful incident was denied in the middle of July. The decision letter from the Starbucks Partner Care Team laid bare a catch-22 situation: It said Hawkins was ineligible for the leave because she did not meet the required number of working hours to receive the benefit.

“Despite having worked at [Starbucks] for seven months and offering to work 40 hours a week this summer, I was severely under scheduled,” she said, adding that the company is being criticized on a national level for intentionally under-scheduling unionized workers in a union-busting effort. “They denied my LOA because I wasn’t working enough hours due to being a victim of union busting.”

Evan Sunshine, a worker who had been at the Collegetown location before it closed, had detailed another time when employees executed lockdown procedures during a bomb threat at Cornell University, but the shift supervisor had insisted that the store reopen regardless of the ongoing situation.

Sunshine also shared that he had requested to transfer to a store in the D.C. area for the summer while he had an internship there. The process had been extremely difficult, and he had ultimately had to transfer to a unionized store in Virginia, which was an hour commute from his internship and housing. He’s currently in the process of trying to transfer back to an Ithaca store for the upcoming semester.

Hawkins has decided to leave the company for the sake of her mental health.

“I wanted to work at Starbucks — it was hard, but I kept with it because I thought that I could see a change. I wanted to stick with Starbucks.”

A comment was not provided by the current manager Chris Mix at the Commons store, and the Ithaca workers’ union reps did not respond to a request for comment. Starbucks’ corporate office also did not respond to a request for comment.

General assignment reporter Jimmy Jordan contributed reporting to this article.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...