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Davis Journal

Working as a barista isn’t always cool

Jul 28, 2023 10:34AM ● By Bryan Gray

The opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author. 

The headline was a surprise to many readers: “Bountiful Starbucks Employees Voted to Join Labor Union.”

To me, their surprise wasn’t surprising. When we think of labor unions, we conjure up beefy, tattooed men working construction or sweating in warehouses. We think of men driving forklifts and loading trucks, not young men and women squirting caramel drizzles on a latte.  We think of men and women holding picket signs, not younger workers searching for Marvel superhero bits on TikTok.

But the labor vote happened in the Bountiful coffee shop. It was unanimous – 18-0 – and it became the fourth Utah Starbucks (and one of 320 nationwide, employing 8,000) to unionize. 

The fact that many found the move surprising comes from the widely-held notion that working as a barista is “cool” and not entirely difficult. But if you have that idea, you haven’t spoken to the employees. (Starbucks management wouldn’t comment for this column, but employees did.)

“This job is extremely stressful,” said one. “There are times when, against labor law, you have to stand on your feet for as long as nine hours. You might not get a break or time to sit down if the manager feels the store is too busy.”

He wasn’t as concerned about the pay (generally around $16.50 per hour for an experienced non-management staff member) as he was about the time management policy combined with the threat of dismissal. 

“The policy for those working the drive-through is that you have only 45 seconds to hear the customer’s order, then prepare the drink and hand it to the customer,” he said. “That’s easy if the customer is ordering a simple coffee, but a large portion of our customers order customized drinks.”

A newly-popular beverage for Starbucks is their Pink Drink which features coconut milk, fruit juice, and topped with freeze-dried strawberries. Or the Iced Brown Sugar Oat Milk Shaken Espresso made with blonde espresso coffee beans, shaken with brown sugar and cinnamon, and topped with oat milk and ice. 

“Try preparing those in 45 seconds,” said an employee, “While you work around others making other drinks! You can’t do it – yet managers and shift-leads can write you up for not meeting the time frame or greeting a regular customer for a few seconds too long. It’s all up to the manager.”

Another employee complained that his company-provided scholarship (a valuable remote Starbucks benefit offered through Arizona State University) was threatened since he once placed ice in a cup one second before pouring milk into it. (“The drink was then blended,” he said, “So there was no difference in the taste or texture.”)

Customers are often rude as well, one of the men said a female employee had a latte tossed at her simply because the customer felt “it tasted different than the one I had yesterday.”

The union claims that it will get involved in the bargaining process for fair scheduling and promised benefits as well as increased pay. “Our co-workers are smiling,” said one of the staff.

Baristas of the World Unite! Well, that’s probably not what Jimmy Hoffa had in mind – but then again, he was never timed making a double-blended Vente Pink Drink!

Bryan Gray, a longtime Davis County resident, is a former school teacher and has been a columnist for more than 26 years in newspapers along the Wasatch Front.