Sept. 2, 2022 By Michael Dorgan
The city has filed a lawsuit against Starbucks alleging that the coffee chain illegally fired a worker in retaliation for helping to unionize a store in Astoria.
The lawsuit, filed by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), claims Starbucks illegally sacked barista Austin Locke days after the 22-28 31st St. store where he worked voted to unionize – the second store in Queens to do so.
The coffee giant claimed that it fired Locke, 28, for failing to complete a COVID-19 questionnaire after returning to work having been out sick, according to the complaint. Starbucks also claimed Locke, who had been with the store since October 2016, falsely accused a supervisor of making physical contact with him.
However, Locke said he was really fired by the company on July 5 in retaliation for leading the store’s successful vote to unionize days earlier.
Locke claims that he and other pro-union Starbucks workers around the country are being targeted by the company for their efforts to unionize. Around 200 locations across the nation have voted to unionize since December.
The DCWP investigated Locke’s firing and determined Starbucks was in violation of the city’s Fair Workweek Law, known as the “just cause” labor law, by ousting him. Under the law, fast food workers can only be terminated for legitimate economic reasons or for just cause reasons such as misconduct or incompetency.
The DCWP lawsuit, filed with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), is the first time the city has pursued such a case under the law since it took effect in July 2021.
The Department, according to the lawsuit, is demanding that Starbucks give Locke his job back and provide him with back pay for lost work. The DCWP also wants Starbucks to pay undetermined civil penalties.
Starbucks meanwhile intends to defend itself from the alleged violations of the “just cause” law, a company spokesperson told the Queens Post. The spokesperson said Locke failed to follow the company’s COVID-19 guidelines, which potentially put other individuals at the store at risk.
Locke, according to the city’s complaint, returned to work on June 8 after being out sick for two days. He said he followed Starbucks’ protocol by taking his temperature and signing a logbook stating that he had no symptoms of the virus.
He said that he planned to complete a COVID-19 questionnaire on a Starbucks electronic tablet but was unable to find a functioning device. He then began his shift without completing it, the filing states.
Shortly into his June 8 shift, Locke said he attempted to go into a back room to retrieve a cleaning solution but was stopped by a supervisor whom Locke claims inappropriately placed his hand on his chest. Locke then made a complaint of unwanted physical contact to a Starbucks district manager.
On July 5, just days after the store voted to unionize, Locke was sacked by the company.
Starbucks cited Locke’s failure to fill out the questionnaire on June 8 and video footage allegedly disproving his complaint of unwanted physical contact. It is unclear if Locke worked at the store in the intervening weeks.
Locke said he asked to see the footage, but Starbucks refused to show him the video, according to the complaint.
The DCWP said it obtained the footage as part of its investigation — but it did not back up Starbucks’ claim since the incident was out of shot, the suit says.
Locke maintains he is part of a larger cohort of workers that Starbucks is railroading for their unionization efforts. More than 85 workers across the U.S. who have been involved in organizing at the coffee chain have been dismissed in recent months, according to the workers group Starbucks Workers United (SWU).
Locke called for an end to the alleged practice in a statement Friday.
“Starbucks continues to wrongfully fire pro-union workers nationwide in retaliation for union organizing, Locke said. “Starbucks Workers United demands Starbucks rehire all illegally fired workers and put an end to their illegal union-busting campaign.”
He also called on the company to negotiate with workers at the store for better conditions. They previously said they are unionizing to fight for an hourly rate of $25, free and full health care coverage regardless of hours worked, more paid vacation and sick time, as well as expanded childcare and maternity leave.
Queens Councilmember and Council Speaker Adrienne Adams praised the DCWP for taking up the case.
“Protecting workers’ rights to organize and unionize is critical, and employers who try to undermine and violate those rights must be held accountable,” Adams said.
“Starbucks’ actions were not just wrong, but illegal… As a city, we must continue to safeguard the rights of workers to ensure they have the respect, dignity, and conditions they deserve.”