A Starbucks sign in the window of a Starbucks in a Target store in Pittsburgh, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Starbucks fired a pro-union barista for “violating” the company’s social media policy, after he tweeted that he had been asked to come to work even after testing positive for COVID-19.
But in a filing last week, the National Labor Relations Board said Ben Scott had been fired illegally, in retaliation for attempting to organize his coworkers and for publicly discussing an issue of workplace safety.
And in addition to saying the store retaliated against Scott, the NLRB charged that a Starbucks district manager, during a captive audience meeting with employees at Scott’s store in April, ”threatened employees by telling them they would not be eligible for wage increases if they selected the Union as their bargaining representative.”
Scott told VICE News he began working for Starbucks in Georgia in 2021, first at a store in Conyers before he transferred to a store in the Atlanta suburb of Covington. He said he began discussing organizing a union with his fellow workers “a couple months” after a Starbucks location succeeded in unionizing for the first time in Buffalo in December 2021.
Scott’s store was in poor condition, he told VICE News, and he and his colleagues were concerned that their hours were being cut as a result. “Stuff in the store needed to be fixed that was just was not getting fixed. The ceiling collapsed after we were telling them that it needed to be fixed for a month,” Scott told VICE News. “We had to shut down the store for the weekend.”
Workers at the store voted down the union 18-4 in June 2022. Earlier that same month, Scott contracted COVID-19, and entered into the company’s mandatory five-day isolation period. Scott told VICE News that he was asymptomatic throughout the entire illness, but continued to test positive after the five-day period ended.
This is extremely common; the CDC has said that people can continue to test positive for a “few weeks” after the onset of symptoms, and a study conducted when the first version of Omicron was the dominant variant found that 80 percent of people tested positive five days after the onset of symptoms. Asymptomatic carriers of the virus can also still spread it, though research suggests symptomatic carriers are more contagious.
Despite still testing positive, however, Scott was told to return to work. “[The manager] said that Starbucks’ policy is five days and that I was required to come back to my shift the next day, even though I was still testing positive,” Scott told VICE News. “So I let the other employees know, and they were rightfully upset that I was getting told to come in even though I’m positive.”
He also went one step further. “So I just got told that even though I’m still covid positive I need to come in to work my shift tomorrow,” Scott, who is also a professional wrestler, posted in a now-deleted June 13 tweet. “I’d hate to keep my fans uninformed about the Starbucks in Covington, GA on highway 278 where I’m gonna be working all day tomorrow with a covid positive test.”
A Starbucks Twitter account responded to Scott’s tweet and urged him to reach out to the “Partner Contact Center,” which is what the company calls its human resources department. He was fired three weeks later, on July 4.
Scott “included the address of the store and invited the public to visit him at this store location, while COVID-19 positive,” the company said in firing paperwork it gave to Scott. “This tweet adversely affects Starbucks, customers, and partner [sic], which violates our social media policy.”
The former Starbucks worker chuckled at the characterization of his tweet, and said he had intended to communicate the opposite of an invitation. “I wasn’t inviting customers to come catch COVID, I was letting them know that there’s going to be a COVID positive person here and to stay away,” Scott told VICE News.
In an email, Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull told VICE News the company denies the charges in the NLRB’s complaints, and said Starbucks didn’t intimidate workers or fire Scott in retaliation. Trull said the company stands by its claim that Trull was lawfully fired for violating the social media guidelines.
“We disagree with the merits of the complaint and maintain that corrective actions and partner meetings at our Covington store were lawful and consistent with Starbucks policies,” Trull said. “We look forward to a full legal review of the matter as we work side-by-side with our partners to deliver the Starbucks experience and reinvent our company for the future.”
Scott filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company with the NLRB. And on Feb. 1, the Board—which has frequently sided with Starbucks workers who’ve alleged retaliation —agreed with Scott.
NLRB’s Regional Director in Atlanta Lisa Y. Henderson wrote in the complaint that Starbucks fired Scott because he “engaged in concerted activities with other employees for the purpose of mutual aid and protection by discussing workplace safety and terms and conditions of employment,” and to discourage other employees from doing the same.
In addition to saying the store retaliated against Scott, the NLRB charged that a Starbucks district manager, during a captive audience meeting in April, ”threatened employees by telling them they would not be eligible for wage increases if they selected the Union as their bargaining representative.” The NLRB ordered Starbucks to automate your posting a notice of employees’ rights and have a “responsible management official” explain employees’ rights, something it has ordered Starbucks leadership to do on numerous occasions.
Well over a hundred pro-union Starbucks employees have claimed the company fired them illegally in retaliation for organizing activity that’s protected by federal law. As of Jan. 23, Starbucks employees had filed more than 550 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks, while the company had filed 76 charges against Starbucks Workers United, the union representing Starbucks workers. The NLRB also said it has facilitated two settlements covering four charges between workers and the company.
An NLRB hearing on Scott’s case is scheduled for early June. Scott told VICE News he’s “just looking for justice, really.”
“Hopefully it can lead to some sort of rally or something to give more justice back to these people that just wanted better benefits and pay and a better workplace,” Scott said.
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