Medium: Opinion: I'm a Second-Generation Starbucks Barista. And I Want a Fair Workweek.

Darrion Sjoquist, November 11, 2015

I remember seeing my mother working closing and opening shifts one after the other. At the time, she was a shift supervisor at Starbucks. That meant that she would be home around 10 p.m. and leave for work at 4 a.m. the next morning. This was three years before I would become a partner and even then it was clear that something wasn’t right.

My mother and I take care of my niece Khaliah, who was 4 years old when my mom was a shift supervisor. At that time, because of her schedule, I ended up picking up a lot of the childcare responsibilities. At 16, I was waking up at 4:30 a.m. to get Khaliah to her preschool by 7 a.m. I would then rush back to the bus stop to get to my high school by 8 a.m. We never knew what the next week would be like more than a 7 days in advance, sometimes less. There was no consistency. As a result it was difficult to be an involved student. I was late as often as the buses were and couldn’t regularly attend any clubs or groups. Without structure in your life, it’s difficult to form healthy habits and it’s easy to feel lost or overwhelmed.

Now I work at Starbucks. I usually close my store, which has shifted my sleep schedule to the point where I can only fall asleep at around 3 a.m. Recently, at around 4 a.m. I got a phone call that brought back memories of my mom’s clopening days at the company. It was from a coworker who had never called me before. As soon as she said my name, I knew why she was calling. She was sick. She asked if I could cover her 4:30 a.m. to 10:30 am shift that morning. She’d tried every number she could and was having difficulty speaking, let alone standing and working for six hours. She said she didn’t know who else to call or what else she could do. She asked if I could cover even part of her shift.

I said yes. I worked her six-hour shift that morning and returned an hour later to work my own eight-hour shift that afternoon. I worked her shift because if I hadn’t, no one would have, or even worse, she would have tried.

Starbucks expects us to find staff coverage when we call in sick. You are expected to show up for work if your son has been missing for 24 hours or your grandfather has died. If you are so sick that it hurts to speak, you are expected to call and text and beg every available person and ask them to sacrifice their day off, their precious hours before work or after school to help you solve a problem neither of you had any control over.

It’s a strange practice, one that breeds the mindset that being sick is your fault. When this outlook is coupled with incredibly lean staffing, there’s an enormous amount of guilt that comes with calling in sick. When losing just one person means disaster, calling in sick feels like abandoning your friends and peers. The bottom line is that no one chooses to be sick, but Starbucks seems to punish partners for calling out. The policy is to force baristas to ask their co-workers with no notice to work at stores where they’ve never been and to work with people they do not know. For a company as innovative and considerate as Starbucks this seems like it would be a last resort, not standard procedure.

The people who suffer from this lack of consideration are people who are already sick or under immense pressure in their lives. It’s easier to come in, regardless of the health risks posed to co-workers and customers, than it is to find coverage. So baristas will come in sick, injured, bleeding, and exhausted, believing it’s their responsibility or that it’s better than the alternative, which is calling for hours hoping someone will have time to help. Failing all else you leave your co-workers understaffed on top of the already bare-bones staff they have.

Under-staffing, barriers to sick time, and the resulting last-minute scheduling pressures are just one face of the scheduling issues at Starbucks and too many other large scale corporations. People should have 11 hours of rest between shifts, because they are human. Human beings need time to go home, to have dinner and to sleep. Already, over 20,000 people have signed Connecticut barista Ciara Moran’s petition for a real end to clopenings. I joined Working Washington to help put an end clopenings and fight the culture that says being sick is your fault. I’m helping my coworkers to organize for a fair workweek at Starbucks and beyond. We’ve been speaking with other coffee and fast food workers about the need for work schedules we can count on. But the conversation needs to be bigger than just us, we need to have communication with our employers so that we can find real solutions.

Together with other baristas and shift supervisors, we delivered a letter to Starbucks headquarters asking for our CEO Howard Schultz to meet with us. Unfortunately, we have not received a response from Mr. Schultz.

I will be sharing my own and co-workers’ stories at the Next:Economy Conference on Nov. 12. to educate the broader business world about the harmful effects of unstable schedules. It’s time for Starbucks to become an industry leader on a new front: fair schedules. I hope that Howard Schultz hears my story, and responds to our letter with a time when we can meet to work together to make Starbucks better.