Starbucks union drive spurred by barista burnout from mobile orders

FILE PHOTO: Starbucks Workers United members meet at their office in Buffalo, New York, U.S., December 7, 2021. REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario/File Photo

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Starbucks Corp baristas waging a union campaign in Buffalo, New York, say they are organizing in part to have more of a say in the workload created by the company's mobile app, which has left them struggling to keep up with surges in orders for $6 Frappuccinos and other custom coffee drinks.

On Thursday, the National Labor Relations Board will tally ballots from employees at three stores in the area. Baristas and shift supervisors there are seeking to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. They need a simple majority of votes cast for each store to win at that location.

The pandemic has created a surge in mobile orders at Starbucks and other restaurant chains. The baristas in Buffalo and elsewhere complain that they cannot limit the number of mobile orders per hour, leading to unexpected surges they struggle to fulfill.

Individual stores can turn off mobile orders completely for their locations temporarily, but that requires a manager's approval, the company confirmed, and customers can then order from other nearby locations.

Baristas said that adds to those other stores' burdens, but the company said such shifts do not necessarily lead to overflows in other stores.

The union election involves about 100 workers altogether, a tiny fraction of the roughly 220,000 employees in the U.S. cafes of Seattle-based Starbucks. But a win in Buffalo could catch fire as baristas who have also complained about thin staffing and little control over workplace conditions enjoy more power in a tight labor market.

Since the Buffalo campaign was announced in August, three other nearby locations and one store as far away as Arizona have sought to follow its lead.

"We respect the process that is underway and, independent of any outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our Mission and Values," Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson told employees in a letter on Tuesday.

Employees who spoke with Reuters said they want higher wages, seniority pay and better staffing levels. But burnout from mobile orders and frustration with other tech systems has been an important driver in the campaign, interviews with five workers suggest.

"Technology was made for customers and not for employees," said Casey Moore, a barista at one of the Starbucks locations whose votes are being counted on Thursday. "Without a union we haven't been able to voice how the technology could also work for us."

A Starbucks spokesman said the company is constantly updating its app based on employee and customer feedback.


Moore and other employees interviewed by Reuters said they are not opposed to tech in principle but want more of a say in how it is developed and deployed in stores.

When Starbucks launched seasonal holiday drinks and gave out free tumblers in November, the mobile ordering system was so inundated with orders at one Buffalo area store that staff fell behind by as much as 40 minutes and threw away at least 30 drinks abandoned by customers, said James Skretta, a barista there.

The chain has about 20 stores in and around Buffalo. It launched its app in 2009 but added new ways to pay and earn points in 2020 as rewards memberships soared during the pandemic.

The mobile order app "completely changed what it means to be a barista," said Danka Dragic, a shift supervisor at one Buffalo area store.

Starbucks baristas are not the only workers who have balked at stores' high-tech makeovers. Five workers at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc location in Austin, Texas, quit after becoming overwhelmed with mobile orders, according to media reports.

Walmart Inc in June rolled out an app that it said enables employees to complete various tasks from their phones, but labor advocates warned the technology could open the door to more stringent productivity quotas.

A Walmart spokesperson said the app eases aspects of work including scheduling, clocking in and communication for employees.

"Workers across industries are challenging the creep of punitive technology in the workplace," Bianca Agustin, corporate accountability director at labor nonprofit United for Respect, said in a statement.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has fought to ensure sensors and other technology installed in United Parcel Service Inc trucks are not used to punish drivers, and hospitality union UNITE HERE has pushed for tech aimed at boosting worker protection, including safety buttons for hotel cleaners.

Starbucks baristas also chafe at a performance management program that rates their customer service – especially because they are under pressure by other technology that tracks how fast they process drive-thru orders.

"It's as though you are making drinks under the pressure of trying to defuse a ticking time bomb," Skretta said.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ in New York and Julia Love in San Francisco; Editing by Vanessa O'Connell and Matthew Lewis)

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