Union organizers are claiming that coffee giant Starbucks has been telling its baristas that unionizing could jeopardize insurance coverage for gender-affirming care, according to a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations board.
The complaint alleging that the company is threatening to axe health care benefits for transgender employees comes as close to 100 cafes have voted to unionize. The first cafes began the voting process in December 2021, although only four have officially certified their votes and entered collective bargaining negotiations.
According to Bloomberg, the complaint, filed by Workers United, Starbucks alleges that managers at cafes have been “threatening employees with loss of benefits” — including transgender health care — in an effort to coerce them into voting against unionization efforts.
“I think the company realizes that we as trans partners feel particularly vulnerable at this time,” Oklahoma Starbucks employee Neha Cremin, who is trans, told Bloomberg. “I think that in some cases they are willing to take advantage of that.”
Cremin said her manager recently told her in a one-on-one meeting that she wasn’t anti-union but warned that unionization could threaten the status of benefits, such as coverage for gender-affirming care, which will have to be negotiated between employees and cafes. The manager then allegedly said, “I know specifically, you have used the trans health care benefits” — remarks that struck Cremin as a “veiled threat.”
In May, Starbucks announced it was expanding its benefits at U.S. cafes to include travel expenses for employees accessing abortions or gender-affirming procedures that aren’t available within 100 miles of where they live.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has previously touted the company’s insurance coverage for gender confirmation surgery — which has been offered since 2012 — and other gender-affirming treatments and procedures such as breast reduction or facial feminization surgery — available since 2018 — as evidence of its LGBTQ-friendliness. Other pro-LGBTQ policies the company often touts are health care coverage for same-sex domestic partners and employees with terminal illnesses such as cancer or advanced AIDS, reports CNBC.
However, Starbucks has also sought to highlight the potential detriments of unionization, arguing that outcomes of union contract talks are unpredictable, and that all employees should be fully informed about the process.
U.S. labor law currently allows employers to share negative opinions and predictions about unionization with employees, but prohibits anti-union threats or retaliation, although there can be a fine line between a prediction and a threat, Matthew Bodie, a Saint Louis University labor law professor and former National Labor Relations Board attorney, told Bloomberg.
For example, a Pittsburgh Starbucks employee — who asked for anonymity due to fear of retaliation — told Bloomberg that a pair of managers held a meeting in which they brought up her plans to get gender-affirming surgery, suggesting that her insurance benefits might go away if the cafe unionized. They reportedly asked her what might happen if her co-workers didn’t care about trans health care and negotiated a benefit package that did not include coverage for gender-affirming treatments.
In another instance, Starbucks posted a flyer in all of its U.S. stores this past spring that included a list of existing benefits, such as “health care,” “help with mental health,” and “help with DACA,” a federal program protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation. The flyer alleged that the state of those benefits, if workers unionized would be “UNCLEAR.”
Starbucks has denied it has threatened to strip away health care benefits for transgender employees, calling such claims false. Currently, the company offers health benefits to any worker who averages at least 20 hours of work per week.
In response to an inquiry from Metro Weekly, the company said where confusion may be coming from is that in stores represented by a union, the law requires “good-faith” bargaining with all wages, benefits, and working conditions up for negotiation. As a result, Starbucks can’t make individual promises or guarantees about any benefits — because each store’s negotiations and what benefits employees there prioritize during the collective bargaining process will look different from other stores.
For instance, health care benefits such as insurance coverage for gender-affirming care could still be offered at a particular cafe, but depending on the outcome of the collective bargaining process, employees could end up having to change insurance carriers, or pay higher deductibles or incur higher out-of-pocket costs, such as co-pays. The company says that such details are impossible to predict.