At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic there were massive shutdowns and heavy restrictions on public movement as America scrambled to slow the spread of the virus. Only essential businesses were allowed to remain open under limited operations in order to sustain the basic needs of the population. But what constitutes an essential business? Clearly front-line responders and emergency medical services were necessary. Grocery stores and delivery services kept people in supply of necessary sustenance and other basic household essentials. But then other businesses such as fast food and other types of restaurants were allowed to remain open under a take-out or delivery framework. This is where the definition of essential starts to break down. I can understand the need for food that requires little to no preparation for individuals who do not have a kitchen to prepare food in, but at what point is the restaurant industry staying open putting more people at risk than it is helping?
As I spent the entirety of the pandemic working at Starbucks, I questioned just how essential Starbucks was. After all, didn’t billionaires spend many an article telling millennials that if they just stopped buying a $4 latte every day, they would be able to afford a house in a few short years? As Helaine Olen points out in her article critiquing this advice, that math doesn’t quite work, but the underlying message is still that buying an overpriced coffee beverage at a café is a luxury, not a necessity. So, if expensive coffee beverages are a luxury, why should the popular chain stay open at put its employees at risk? Because despite reduced capacities and store closures when an employee inevitably caught Covid-19, the company still stood to make a profit. According to the Starbucks Q4 fiscal review, the consolidated net revenue for the company came in at $23.5 billion with an 11.3% decrease from the previous fiscal year.
Starbucks did take some steps to increase benefits for employees during the pandemic such as temporary hazard pay, additional paid leave, and a free food and drink benefit. The hazard pay, which was a $3 raise from March to May 2020 brought employees closer to a $15 living wage for a short time. Yet this ended quickly as Starbucks chose to end the pay while removing safety precautions such as opening the café and allowing indoor seating which has been proven to be a major factor in spreading the Covid virus. As Forbes staff writer Suzanne Rowan Kelleher explains in her article about a new study, Covid-19 can spread between diners in under 5 minutes and up to over 3 times the 6-foot distance recommended by the CDC. By opening the café to indoor dining, Starbucks put their customers and employees at an extremely high risk for contracting Covid-19 while discontinuing the hazard pay. The incentive to increase profits once the reality set in that the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon won out over concern for public health.
Many Starbucks customers would probably disagree that Starbucks is a luxury not a necessity, as countless, unmasked, people thanked me profusely for being there to serve them. I mean, how else could they survive working from home without coffee right? In fact, early in the pandemic all essential workers were being lauded as heroes for continuing to work and provide necessary services for everyone despite the risk we were taking. Most essential workers did not have the choice to serve others despite the risk; they were forced to choose between risking their health and risking losing all income. Essential workers aren’t heroes, their hostages of a capitalist structure that forces people into impossible choices.
Despite the enthusiastic gratitude customers had for their baristas, they rarely took the appropriate safety precautions such as wearing a mask for the few moments they were in contact with us. I remember being asked by a customer in the drive thru if I “felt safe” working during the pandemic while she was not wearing a mask and a mere three feet from my face. While looking at her collection of masks hanging from her rear-view mirror she elected not to use, I answered honestly; it was not safe, and people rarely made the effort to make it safer. And this was the behavior from the nice customers. Customers clearly didn’t value the health or safety of the people providing them their necessary service which only became clearer the longer the pandemic stretched on as people became laxer about wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
Even when faced with store closures due to positive Covid-19 cases, customers continued to disregard safety precautions and even pretended to not understand why we would have been in quarantine for exactly 14 days in order to justify their actions. In addition, customers have become increasingly less grateful for our continued operation as the pandemic has gone on regardless of how severe the circumstances have been. During the weeks where thousands of people were dying of Covid-19 every day, customers continuously asked us when we would be discontinuing the minimal safety precautions put in place with a clear disregard for just how dangerous that would be for all of us involved.
Kelleher, S. R. (n.d.). This Is How Quickly Covid-19 Can Spread In A Restaurant, Per New Study. Forbes. Retrieved April 7, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/suzannerowankelleher/2020/12/15/this-is-how-quickly-covid-19-can-spread-in-a-restaurant-per-new-study/
Olen, H. (2016, May 26). Your Latte Isn’t Why You’re in Debt, and the People Who Say It Is Are Lying to You. Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/business/2016/05/the-latte-is-a-lie-and-buying-coffee-has-nothing-to-do-with-debt-an-excerpt-from-helaine-olens-pound-foolish.html
Starbucks. 2020. Starbucks Report Q4 Fiscal 2020 Results. https://stories.starbucks.com/uploads/2020/10/Starbucks-Earnings-Release-Q4-FY20.pdf