Published August 24th, 2022 at 12:05 PM
It was a sleepy summer Monday on Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza.
Regulars dropped by the stuccoed Starbucks on the corner of Nichols Road. A “caramel macchiato, hold the whip” order here. A “double shot of espresso” there.
But afternoon regulars were in for a shock.
The clock ticked 3:30 p.m. Customers were given a white piece of paper. Doors were locked behind them.
Baristas and supervisors, dubbed partners by Starbucks, were instructed to gather around the marble table for an impromptu meeting with district manager Trena Cruz, store manager Eric Schmidt and members of corporate leadership who appeared on Zoom.
They were told the Plaza Starbucks was closed — for good. Unsuspecting customers were waved away.
No more regulars. No more coffee. No more “partners” at the Plaza.
Some of what follows come from a recording of the meeting obtained by Flatland.
“This is really messed up. I feel really blindsided right now,” said an unidentified employee, her voice shaking with emotion. “This is my family, this is my community, this is my life. … The way this is being done is not OK.”
Scattered thoughts and tensions high, people began to cry and some raised their voices, begging for an explanation.
Camryn, a barista, who was on the floor said the moment she read the piece of paper it felt as though time slowed down. She and others on shift hugged each other and cried.
Another employee began to sob, saying: “I love all these people. I love this location. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
A Starbucks executive, trying to calm the group, said, “We know that and we love that. We took all of that into consideration.”
Managers shared the next steps, which included encouraging employees to fill open positions at nearby Starbucks locations, providing Lyfts for those who lack transportation and paying folks for missed shifts from the time of the announcement through Thursday, Aug. 24.
The company cited “safety concerns” repeatedly. They referred to increased shootings around the block, the most recent of which happened on Aug. 14.
“When it comes to shootings in the parking lot around your store, we have got to protect you all,” said Starbucks human resources executive Julie Wendell, appearing via Zoom.
Wendell cited the shootings as the main reason why they decided to close the store. The closure was not in reaction to recent unionization efforts at the store, she said.
Local managers Cruz and Schmidt insisted that the closure was just as much a surprise to them.
“It isn’t something that we’ve been keeping secret,” a store leader insisted.
However, the message from corporate leaders was clear. Closure plans had been steeping for weeks among corporate leaders.
“This is not about anything except for making sure you are safe,” Wendell said on Zoom.
The “safety concerns” message as an impetus to close certain locations has been circulating across the nation. As KCUR reported, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was quoted saying, “We are beginning to close stores that are not unprofitable. … This is just the beginning.”
Starbucks recently reported third-quarter revenue of $8.15 billion, a 9% increase from a year earlier. The company posted a quarterly net income of $912.9 million, down 21% from a year earlier. The company blamed narrower profit margins on inflation and higher wages for baristas.
More and more staffers spoke up as the meeting at the Plaza Starbucks continued. Some yelled. One slapped their hands on the table. Others scoffed and murmured to one another in disbelief.
“All he (Schultz) cares about is a dollar. We are numbers. We are profit. We are not people,” one partner said.
Some of these employees define safety and security as the ability to pay rent or pay off student loans. For others, this was their only job. They didn’t believe the leaders’ assertions.
Violence has long been a problem in the Plaza area. Report after report, month after month. Gun violence has even prompted city officials to consider spending about $200,000 bolstering security around Westport and Country Club Plaza.
In an email to Flatland, the spokesperson for Country Club Plaza declined to comment on safety concerns cited by Starbucks leadership.
For retail workers, the risk of stray bullets and assaults looms large. They are aware but work because they need the money, which pays about $12 per hour.
In a comment to Flatland on the economic factors at play in the labor market, Frank Lenk, director of research services at the Mid-America Regional Council, provided a rundown of median wages and unemployment rates. Lenk cited the most recent available data, which is for 2021.
The median wage for food service workers ($23,800 per year) is roughly half the median wage of all workers ($43,400) in the Kansas City metro area. The unemployment rate among food service workers is 6.8% compared to 3.9% for all workers in the metro.
Lenk also noted that many restaurants and related food service companies are struggling to fill open jobs.
“You should also know that in the last 30 days, there have been 2,030 job postings for first-line supervisors of food preparation workers, 1,785 postings for baristas, and 1,676 postings for fast food and counter workers,” Lenk said in a text. “These are the 6th, 7th, and 8th most posted positions in the KC area.”
For the service workers who were making the coffee and mopping the floors at the Plaza location, it was a way to make ends meet.
That was the case for McKenzie Mays, who gets paid $12 per hour. Mays hoped to get a pay bump to match her mounting bills. Her requests for increased hours and higher pay went ignored.
Half of her check goes to student loan payments, the rest to bills and her rent, which is paid — in part — with credit cards.
Now, she’s looking for a new job.
For other partners, it isn’t so easy.
“I come to work and don’t ask questions,” said an unidentified barista at the closing meeting.
He was on duty when the latest shooting occurred. He didn’t even take a day off the following day.
If leaders had truly considered everything, he said, supporting staffers’ needs in the moment would have been the first step. Instead, he’s forced to adjust.
Many Starbucks staffers complained that they were never consulted about the closure.
“We were blindsided. Point blank, period,” said another employee.
The consensus was that every worker who makes $8 coffees with $1 worth of supplies should have been a part of the conversation.
Others suspect something else is brewing.
Addy Wright, who’s been a supervisor at the Plaza for several years, believes the shuttering had more to do with their union filing back in January. The Plaza location was the first store to file to form a union in Kansas City.
But the fight for unionization has been a tug-of-war.
In May, the National Labor Relations Board filed a formal complaint against Starbucks on Country Club Plaza, according to The Beacon. In August, Starbucks Corp. accused the NLRB of “unfairly rigging union elections,” according to Nation’s Restaurants News.
“You can tie up a Union Election for 10 years if you want. Our labor laws are incredibly weak. They’re just riddled with problems that employers take advantage of in order to keep workers from organizing,” says Judy Ancel, a retired labor professor and human rights leader. “And we’re seeing that play out as kind of a textbook case here in Kansas City with Starbucks.”
In the past several months, 19 Starbucks stores in the U.S. have closed. Of those, 42% had plans to unionize, according to a Workers United release.
“If Starbucks was serious about solving safety issues, they could work with partners and our union,” Mari Orrego, a union organizer with The Chicago and Midwest Joint Board of Workers United, said in a release. “Instead, Schultz and Starbucks have sent a message loud and clear – complain about safety, and we’ll close your store.”
Labor equity experts say sudden closures appear suspicious, especially the way the Plaza’s closure rolled out. There’s precedent, they claim.
“Starbucks has engaged in various tactics, some illegal, some just nasty and a number of its stores in that Kansas City area in order to block unionization,” Ancel said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this closing of the Starbucks stores in the Plaza is retaliation for the attempt to unionize.”
Starbucks closed the Plaza store in Kansas City, MO today. Our stores filed together on January 31st. Being the first stores in Kansas and Missouri to file for a union with @SBWorkersUnited we are devastated by this news but this is not the end #shameonstarbucks— 75th I-35 SBWU (@SBWU75) August 23, 2022
Ancel explained tactics such as nipping protests early on or disbanding unions before they gain momentum have been used at other companies like Chipotle. It takes persistence for unions to become established. She wished the Plaza workers well in their protests.
Wright has no plans to stop fighting. She joined union efforts because she agreed with the partners’ collective concerns: a lack of COVID-19 precaution, pay equity and a general lack of support from upper management.
“They are afraid of the power that we hold as a collective group, in the unionization process,” Wright said in the meeting that Monday. “Even though we don’t all agree with it, we agree that this company has done something wrong.”
Wright has one year left of college. She planned on working there for the remainder of her college career.
“They have just completely uprooted our lives,” she told Flatland, adding she doesn’t plan on transferring to another location.
“It’s not the job that I care about. It is the store and these people.”
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.