Starbucks in Corvallis: An Evil Empire?

Starbucksdowntown1If you’re a diehard fan of Starbucks coffee, you may not want to read on. The mega chain that made espresso drinks culturally popular and added Tall, Grande, Venti, and Trenta (a 916 ml cup, the size of a wine bottle and larger than the capacity of the average human stomach) to our daily vernacular may not be all it’s cracked up to be for its employees, independent competition, or the local economy—even in locales like Corvallis that don’t seem all that threatened either from a cultural or business standpoint.

Although the baristas I’ve encountered in our Corvallis Starbucks shops are enthusiastic, offer excellent service, and seem pleased with their jobs overall, reports elsewhere point to the contrary. For example, an employee tip controversy has recently come to light at Portland area Starbucks.

The Oregonian reported last month that three former employees filed a class action suit against Starbucks, claiming the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. The lawsuit charges that some workers are earning less than minimum wage due to a “phantom wage” the company includes in their paychecks instead of unreported tips. The complaint alleges Starbucks illegally adds an extra 50 cents per hour to employee paystubs and W-2 forms in lieu of tips, and workers are encouraged not to report their tips.

If there’s any truth to this suit it seems like an unfair practice, considering an hour of tips for a barista could be well over half of a dollar. Many people who work in the customer service industry have to rely heavily on their tips to make a living, because they generally make around minimum wage.

Laurel Harper, a Starbucks spokeswoman, defended the company’s current policy. “We’re in full compliance with state and federal laws on how tips are taxed,” she said. And as we all know, federal standards provide for cost-of-living. That’s sarcasm, by the way.

Treat others as you…
Starbucks has come under fire more than once in past years for allegations of management mistreatment.

In a Business Insider article titled “12 Ways to Get Fired by Starbucks,” most of the employee terminations seem inexcusable and in clear violation of an employee’s civil rights. Here are some of the “12 ways”:

In 2009, a newly hired little person was fired after three days of training merely for requesting to stand on a stool to make her job easier. The company claimed the accommodation would be “dangerous to customers and co-workers.” Two years later, Starbucks ended up paying her $75,000 for disability discrimination.

In 2010, a shift manager of seven years was asked to resign after district managers took issue with his tattoos. When he refused, saying his tattoos predated his employment with the company and that he had always covered his tattoos and followed the corporate dress code policy, he was fired. He filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against Starbucks and claimed that several female co-workers who also had tattoos were not discharged.

In 2008, a Michigan area employee was fired when he tried to organize a barista union. The next year, Starbucks settled on a complaint filed on the employee’s behalf by the National Labor Relations Board. The first Starbucks barista union was created in a New York City location in 2004 stemming from complaints of low starting wages and irregular hours.

You can check out the Starbucks Workers Union here: The union claims that Starbucks workers in Chile are currently on strike because they make less per hour than the price of a cup of coffee.

Besides these union claims and the tip lawsuit, negative publicity surrounding how Starbucks management treats its employees hasn’t been as prevalent in the mainstream media lately. Perhaps the company has righted the ship? Or perhaps not.

Move Over Independents
Starbucks doesn’t add more locations just through expansion alone. The corporation has developed a bad reputation among industry insiders for supposedly scouting out locally successful mom and pop coffee shops in an effort to either duplicate their neighborhood style/atmosphere or simply wanting to acquire the location all together. Starbucks has been accused of using what are referred to as “predatory” tactics by its competitors in the past.

In a lawsuit from 2006, Belvi Coffee and Tea Exchange Inc., another Seattle-based coffee shop, claimed Starbucks used its monopoly standing to keep other coffeehouses out of the prime downtown locations in Seattle and Bellevue through exclusive leases with property owners. It was alleged that the company would sign really long leases and offer to pay well above market value if the property owners would refuse to allow any competitors to occupy the same building.

Starbucks employees were reportedly handing out free samples (“predatory” tactics) in front of the rival shop, until it ultimately forced them out of business. The lawsuit resulted in a mediated settlement.

However, major chains aren’t always successful when it comes to removing independent businesses from the big market landscape. A recent study from the Economic Development Corporation showed that Starbucks makes up only 272 of the 1,700 coffee shops and cafes located in New York’s five boroughs.

While you can’t really compare Corvallis to New York City, its independent coffee shops are holding their own against Starbucks so far in much the same way. Corvallisites should not only be proud of supporting local businesses in general, but for treating Starbucks like just another coffee shop instead of something above and beyond the local shops—the goal of all expanding corporations.

by Patrick Fancher