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Fired Starbucks worker behind Astoria store’s unionization gets reinstated — and $21,000 in back pay

Austin Locke, pictured, has been reinstated and awarded more than $21,000 in back pay and penalties for having been fired by Starbucks (Photo provided by Luigi Morris)

March 2, 2023 By Michael Dorgan

An Astoria Starbucks worker who was fired by the chain last summer — in the midst of the store where he worked voting to unionize — has been reinstated and awarded more than $21,000 in back pay and penalties.

Austin Locke was sacked from his barista role at the 22-28 31st St. store in July, but has now gotten his job back after the chain settled a lawsuit with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) on Monday, Feb. 27, according to city officials.

The DCWP lawsuit had claimed that Starbucks illegally sacked Locke days after the 31st Street store voted to unionize – the second store in Queens to do so. Locke had been a lead organizer in advocating for his store to unionize.

The agency, in the lawsuit, said that 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 coffee giant, on the other hand, had claimed that it fired Locke 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.

On Feb. 27, the mayor announced that Starbucks had settled with the city and agreed to reinstate Locke to his former role, pay more than $21,000 in backpay and penalties, and comply with the Fair Workweek Law going forward.

“New York’s workers should know that we will always fight to protect their rights,” Adams said.

“Thanks to the efforts of our administration, Austin Locke will be returning to his job… and with thousands of dollars in back pay in his pocket. We will not stand by when an employee is unlawfully terminated, and I commend DCWP for its quick work in this case.”

The DCWP lawsuit, filed with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), was the first time the city has pursued such a case under the law since it took effect in July 2021.

Starbucks, meanwhile, said that it did not agree with a key argument the city put forward in the case.

“While we continue to disagree with the city’s interpretation of what constitutes egregious misconduct under the ‘just cause’ law, we have agreed to reinstate Mr. Locke and reduce his corrective action to a written warning for violation of health and safety protocols,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement to the Queens/Astoria Post.

Locke and a group of his supporters held a rally outside the 31st Street store Monday to celebrate the news. Among those in attendance were members of the workers groups Starbucks Workers United (SWU) and Secure Jobs NYC.

The barista echoed the mayor’s sentiments and said that the settlement was an important victory.

“Getting reinstated is not just a win for me but a win for the working class,” Locke said. “Let this be an example to all, in New York City, you can’t mess with workers.”

Locke had maintained that he was really fired by the company on July 5 in retaliation for leading the store’s successful vote to unionize days earlier. The store workers previously said they were 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.

Locke claimed that he and other pro-union Starbucks workers around the country were being targeted by the company for their efforts to unionize. More than 270 locations across the nation have voted to unionize since late 2021.

The city has filed a lawsuit against Starbucks. The suit accuses the coffee giant of illegally firing a worker who spearheaded a campaign to unionize the 22-28 31st St. store in Astoria (Photo: Google Maps)

A spokesperson for Starbucks told the Queens/Astoria Post in September that it had intended to defend itself from the alleged violations of the “just cause” law.

The spokesperson had 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.

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.

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