Over the last two years, the foodservice segment has seen a partial recovery in employment, adding back about 5 million of the 6 million jobs lost in the spring of 2020,according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But low pay, inconsistent hours and a lack of development opportunities drove many restaurant employees into other industries.
Employers and workers have responded differently to this recovery. Some are offering a variety of hiring incentives, including raises and hiring bonuses. Others are turning to promoting from the shop floor to fill managerial roles, offering workers a path for professional development. TGI Fridays added $2,500 vacation reimbursements for general managers to increase internal hiring.
Many operators have turned to technical solutions. White Castle, for example, is bringing burger-flipping robots to 100 more stores in a move the company said would ease the strain on its workers without costing jobs.
Despite repeated waves of COVID-19, which slowed recovery in 2021, the industry's labor market has recovered gradually in early 2022, with hires outpacing quits, despite record high turnover.
But the stress of working in the pandemic and the tightness of the labor market pushed some workers to take action in their stores rather than leave to seek higher pay. A slow trickle of unionization in independent cafes inspired Starbucks workers in Buffalo to organize, where the company's use of support managers and captive audience meetings failed to stymie a union drive.
Even the drawn-out National Labor Relations Board election process couldn't stop the Starbucks union's momentum. The campaign reached 100 stores by late February and saw seven stores vote to unionize by March 23. The coffee giant's struggle with an unprecedented union drive reflects the instability of the labor environment, marked by growing employee demands and a small talent pool.
This report highlights the major changes in the foodservice labor market, including:
The reasons workers have left the industry
Offerings chains have used to encourage retention
How technology can alleviate labor pressure
A behind-the-scenes look at the dynamics of a union drive
How Starbucks Workers United has spread across the United States
These are just a few of the forces shaping workforce behavior and labor market trends. We hope you enjoy this deep dive into the foodservice labor environment.
White Castle brings cooking robot to 100 more restaurants
The burger chain will use Miso Robotics' Flippy 2 robot, which can perform the work of a whole fry station, at nearly one-third of its units.
By: Aneurin Canham-Clyne• Published Feb. 15, 2022
White Castle is deploying robot Flippy 2 at 100 more of its 350 restaurants as part of its existing partnership with Miso Robotics, marking on of the largest deployments of robot kitchen tools to date.
The kitchen robot takes over the work of a whole fry station, taking pressure off of back-of-house labor. Miso Robotics has said in Securities and Exchange Commission documents, however, that the robot won't be a job replacement and can actually create new jobs including "chef techs" who are trained to manage the robot.
The burger chain didn't specify how long it takes to install the labor-saving technology at a restaurant, but said the entire process would take place in regional phases and last years.
White Castle began testing Flippy at a single restaurant in 2020 before expanding the product to 10 additional units last year. The robot has sparked "an immediate positive impact on daily operations and the productivity of its team members," per a company release.
Miso has consistently argued its robots, which include versions of Flippy optimized for cooking wings as well as burgers, isn't a substitute for restaurant labor, but instead allows workers to perform other tasks while avoiding more difficult operations. Miso's systems also use artificial intelligence to refine the robot's performance over time.
"The tasks that Miso's technology can perform are some of the most dangerous tasks in the kitchen, not to mention messy and menial, ultimately improving the employee experience by freeing up time for them to focus on more meaningful work," Miso argued in a Series E Offerings Circular filed with the SEC on Feb. 4, 2022.
Misco also claims in that same filing, however, that Flippy 2 and other robots would save QSRs money on wages for cooks.
"Cooks specifically account for 60% of the total wage expense for a restaurant. Miso Robotics' automation solution can help increase the throughput and efficiency of these cooks, bringing down this majority expense and increasing their profitability in the kitchen," Miso said in the filing.
Buffalo Wild Wings has also tested Miso's Flippy Wings product at a few locations, including Inspire Brands' ghost kitchen, called Alliance Kitchen. Miso claims the robot drives a 10% to 20% jump in food production speed.
While a small, but growing number of tech companies are working on kitchen automations, other restaurant tech companies, like Crunchtime and 7shifts, have focused on integrating POS, inventory and management systems to save time and labor.
Article top image credit: Courtesy of Miso Robotics
TGI Fridays offers general managers up to $2,500 in vacation reimbursements
The casual dining chain is also giving these employees bonuses to help cover health insurance costs to boost retention, Bloomberg reports.
By: Alicia Kelso• Published Jan. 27, 2022
TGI Fridays is reimbursing its general managers up to $2,500 for vacation expenses. The perk was rolled out in 2022 to help mitigate labor shortages affecting the restaurant industry. The casual dining chain is also offering general managers bonuses to help cover health insurance costs.
Fridays' vacation reimbursement is a creative approach to paid time off, which many restaurant chains have expanded throughout the pandemic to attract talent and keep existing employees. The full-service category is more challenged by the labor crisis than its quick-service peer, according to Moody's. But the overall industry continues to see slow job gains.
In April 2021, Taco Bell began offering general managers up to four weeks of accrued vacation per year. Some restaurant owners have taken their employees on vacations to show appreciation for their staff's work throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Danielle Jones, owner of Abenaki Trail Restaurant and Pub in New Hampshire, pays for flights and accommodation for her employees every year. Jones told Business Insider that she hasn't had issues finding staff to keep her restaurant running.
Fridays CEO Ray Blanchette told Bloomberg the chain's two new benefits should bolster retention for both managers and hourly employees striving for promotions.
Employees are leaving the restaurant industry in droves for several reasons, which may be too complex to be solved by vacation stipends or small raises. The current labor market problems exist despite average pay for restaurant workers surpassing $15 an hour for the first time ever last year.
BlackBox/Snagajob data found that 23% of workers are leaving restaurants to find more consistent scheduling and income, and 17% are leaving because they lack access to professional development opportunities. As many as 33% of hourly workers would like to change industries, according to BlackBox/Snagajob data. Further, a majority of surveyed restaurant workers reported experiencing emotional abuse or disrespect on the job during the pandemic.
When federal unemployment benefits expired in 2021, many in the restaurant community hoped it would end the worker shortage that crippled the industry's recovery from COVID-19.
However, more than six months later, the unprecedented worker shortage rages on. As detailed in the BentoBox State of the Workforce Report, quits among food service workers actually peaked two months after enhanced unemployment ended.
This puts restaurants in a challenging hiring position. Operators need to attract more employees, but they also work in an industry with notoriously low margins, making it difficult to compete with offers from outside employers.
However, with a mix of modern revenue-driving strategies and thoughtful workplace improvements, they can find a middle ground that brings workers back — and keeps them happy — while staying profitable. Here are four essential strategies for doing that.
1. Continue to Offer Competitive Pay and Benefits
Zoë Ezrailson, a back-of-house veteran from Washington, DC, didn't mince words when she spoke with the Washington City Paper. "This is a career job," she said emphatically. "I want all of the things that people in careers have. …Health insurance should not be a question if you're in the kitchen working with fire and knives."
When the staffing crisis hit in 2021, restaurant owners began to offer packages that felt more like the "career job" Ezrailson described, including not just benefits but competitive pay. Wages for leisure and hospitality employees rose 5.7% between March and May 2021 — five times higher than the rise for private employees.
Restaurant owners did this because they felt like they had to in the moment, and some may have thought it was temporary. But workers like Ezrailson have gotten a taste of jobs with better wages and benefits, and they don't plan on giving them up.
"For businesses that said, ‘Well, this is what we did before, let's just do it again,' we saw them reevaluate that approach pretty quickly," said Alice Cheng, CEO of hospitality career website Culinary Agents. "They either realized they weren't getting the applicant flow, or they were getting direct feedback from applicants asking, ‘Do you offer anything else?'"
It used to be that restaurant owners could not afford to offer higher wages and benefits. To hire workers in the future, they can't afford not to. But where are they going to find the extra money?
2. Explore All New Revenue Streams
Operating a restaurant requires wearing many hats, and each one brings a new set of responsibilities:
As an employer, you owe it to your workers to offer competitive pay and benefits.
As a business, you owe it to your customers to offer a product they like at a price they deem fair.
As an individual, you owe it to yourself and your family to earn a profit.
Unfortunately, it's extremely difficult to check all three boxes at once. Doing wrong in the eyes of customers jeopardizes your business, and failing to offer competitive pay and benefits seems likely to do the same moving forward (see above). If they still want to earn enough money to support themselves, restaurant owners have to find new revenue streams. It's the only way to make the math work.
For example, Nick's Cafe is a 73-year-old diner in Los Angeles — as old-school as old-school gets. Before the pandemic, its website was extremely limited, and a meager share of its business came from takeout. When the pandemic struck, owner Rod Davis pivoted quickly, creating a custom website with direct online ordering that helped him survive the lockdowns:
"Now we try to steer everybody to the new website for ordering because it's cheaper for the customer, and it's better for us," Davis told Zagat. "...In every to-go order, we include a little flier encouraging customers to go to our website."
Restaurant commerce has been changing for years, particularly with regard to technology. Before the pandemic, embracing those trends was an opportunity — but now it's a necessity. Restaurant owners owe it to their workers to be nimble, experimental and open to change, even if it makes them uncomfortable.
If they aren't, workers will find an employer who is. Because that employer can probably offer more money and better benefits.
3. Build a Strong Employer Brand
Restaurant jobs are demanding, and to a certain extent they always will be. But far too many restaurants have used the inherent demands of the industry to justify running unhealthy workplaces. The pandemic gave workers the perspective to realize they need their employers to do better, along with the leverage to insist upon it.
"People felt abused in the beginning stages of opening back up," said Reesey McElvane, a bartender from Washington, DC, who told Hayes she knows people who recently left the industry after 20+ years. "It shook people enough to say, ‘I don't think I want to get back into this.'"
As workers become more selective regarding where they work, Cheng encourages restaurants to prioritize their employer brands, or how they position their workplace culture to prospects.
For example, if your restaurant has a history of hiring from within, focusing on your employer brand means going above and beyond to communicate that. Career trajectory should be spelled out in your job descriptions, and stories of prominent staff who rose the ranks should be plastered on your website and social media channels.
Similarly, it's easy for restaurant management to fall behind on correspondence with applicants, given their hectic schedules — but making the extra effort signals the restaurant has an organized, empathetic culture. That stands out from other employers.
Just make sure the culture you're selling is true to the culture you have. Embellishing your culture to applicants might help you hire employees in the short-term, but it won't help you retain those employees, and it won't help you hire the people those employees speak with.
4. Streamline Operations With Technology
Properly applying technology to make your restaurant operations more efficient has two major benefits for workers:
Automating tasks reduces how much staff you need on each shift, allowing more budget to go toward individual salaries and benefits.
Eliminating tedious, inefficient and frustrating work allows staff to be more intentional with their time, improving your workplace culture and employer brand.
The point about automation is sometimes met with pushback. However, in the midst of a labor shortage, restaurant owners can hardly be blamed for offloading tasks to technology — especially if it creates a better workplace for the limited staff they have.
For example, Dave & Buster's rolled out a new service model during the labor shortage. Using tablets and a mobile web platform that allows for contactless dining, it expanded the size of server sections and earned positive feedback from staff and guests alike. When the company posted record-breaking revenue growth in Q2 2021, it cited the new technology as a key factor.
Before the pandemic, more than 80% of restaurant owners said using technology provided a competitive advantage. After the pandemic, simply using technology won't be enough: The advantage lies in using technology thoughtfully.
If you go the extra mile to make each shift a little better for your employees, your employees will go the extra mile to work for you.
Article top image credit: Permission granted by BentoBox
Why aren't restaurant workers coming back? Here's what the data shows.
While operators continue to point to high unemployment benefits keeping workers from returning, various reports show the staffing shortage is much more complicated.
By: Julie Littman• Published Sept. 8, 2021
While eating and drinking places gained 1.3 million jobs during the first seven months of 2021, the industry is still 1 million jobs short from reaching its pre-pandemic level of 12.3 million, according to the National Restaurant Association.
In August, however, the industry lost over 40,000 jobs for the first time this year due to an uptick in coronavirus cases, keeping the labor shortage top of mind. Without enough workers, many restaurants have reduced operating hours and rely on overburdened staff who face stronger diner demand.
Many operators continue to pin the labor crisis on higher unemployment benefits offered during the pandemic, but a closer look at several labor reports released in the past few weeks show the situation is much more complicated.
Over a quarter of restaurants can't find enough cooks
Twenty-six percent of restaurants say they are looking for cooks and line cooks, while 17% are in need of servers and 7% are seeking bartenders, according to 7shifts data emailed to Restaurant Dive. Restaurant jobs data was sourced from over 2,400 job postings from over 1,800 restaurants across North America from June 1 to Aug. 22, 2021, while 7shifts used internal data from over 18,000 restaurant locations and 500,000 employees with over 90% sourced in North America.
The hardest positions to fill are for cooks and line cooks, managers and bartenders, the company said. Twenty-three percent of postings for cooks/line cooks receive applications while 37% of manager positions receive applications, according to 7shifts. Fifty-six percent of bartending postings attract applicants.
Sit-down restaurants across the industry are already feeling the pinch of reduced staffing. Full-service concepts are operating with 6.2 fewer employees in the back of house and 2.8 fewer staff members in the front of house compared to 2019, according to a report by Black Box Intelligence and Snagajob. The report includes survey results from over 4,700 former, current and future hourly restaurant workers, as well as data from Black Box Workforce Intelligence.
Limited-service restaurants are also under labor pressure, and a handful of Chick-fil-A and McDonald's units have had to close their dining rooms due to insufficient staffing. Some of the Chick-fil-A restaurants said they disabled curbside ordering to reduce strain on their workers, according to CBS News.
Many restaurant employees just aren't coming back
Numerous workers have left the restaurant industry to seek careers elsewhere, especially after many restaurants closed early in the pandemic. Fifteen percent of hourly workers surveyed by Black Box/Snagajob said they have changed industries in the past year, while 33% would like to do so.
Thirty percent of former restaurant employees found office positions and 17% went into teaching or education, according to Technomic's Crisis on the Front Lines study. Many have also turned to industries that are experiencing tremendous growth. Warehouse/logistics jobs, following a boom in online sales, are up 278% and on-demand jobs, which can provide more flexibility for both workers and employers, are up 183% compared to before the pandemic, according to Snagajob data.
Most workers are leaving the restaurant industry for these three reasons: to receive higher pay (28%); for access to a more consistent schedule/income (23%); and because they lack access to professional development and promotional opportunities (17%), according to Black Box/Snagajob.
Hourly wages are going up
Many restaurants are offering hiring incentives and hourly wages above minimum wage to attract fresh labor. Limited-service hourly wages rose 10% year over year in Q2 2021, according to Black Box Workforce Intelligence data, marking the highest increase the industry has reported in several years. Full-service line cooks saw wages increase 6% during the period, compared to 3% in Q1 2021.
But better pay hasn't been enough to keep employees on the job. Turnover rates for both limited-service and full-service restaurants are higher than they were pre-pandemic, reaching 144% and 106%, respectively, in June. In 2019, limited-service restaurants recorded 135% turnover and full-service operators experienced 102% turnover, according to the Black Box/Snagajob report.
Incidents of abuse have increased
Though restaurant pay is improving, rates of abuse inflicted by both customers and managers have risen during the pandemic. According to the Black Box/Snagajob report, 62% of workers have experienced emotional abuse/disrespect from customers while 49% said they experienced emotional abuse from managers. Fifteen percent of employees said they experienced sexual harassment from customers or managers/co-workers.
A One Fair Wage report from December reiterates these findings, especially with customers acting out in response to the enforcement of COVID-19 protocols. Some workers said customers have threatened to not give a good tip unless the servers took off their masks.
Such harassment could continue, especially with a majority (83%) of workers saying they plan to keep wearing a mask while working regardless of the business or state requirements, according to Black Box/Snagajob.
This dynamic is likely to become more complicated as states and municipalities increasingly require proof of vaccines for diners and employees to enter restaurants. One-third of diners have already said they would leave a restaurant if asked to provide proof of vaccination. And some employees are also pushing back against these mandates. A New York City restaurant owner reported that 20% of his staff said they would rather resign than get vaccines, according to Business Insider.
What restaurants can do
Hiring and retention have been long-standing challenges in the restaurant industry, but the combination of surging diner demand and a shrinking labor market push the stakes even higher. Still, there are strategy pivots restaurants can make to attract and retain workers.
Use technology: Operators that used restaurant technology reduced staff turnover by 13%, which saved over $6,000 in costs to hire new staff for a 10-person team, according to 7shifts. On-demand pay apps have shown to improve retention rates as well, especially since they offer more flexibility on pay schedules versus the typical every-other-week pay date. App-based applications that streamline the process and cut down completion time have also helped boost applicant numbers.
Ensure health and safety on the job: For operators enforcing mask and vaccine mandates, Black Box/Snagajob suggests operators should provide support to workers and make sure staff are comfortable with enforcing these rules — adding that dialogue is key between staff and managers to mitigate potential issues that could impact retention. Employee health check tools can also help ensure staff remain coronavirus-free. Such tools helped prevent the spread of over 500 cases and were used 1.5 million times by employees during the pandemic, according to 7shifts.
Offer flexibility: Over one-third of hourly workers and job seekers are parents, so operators should highlight any flexibility they can offer, Black Box/Snagajob suggests. Employers should talk to their staff to see what they need if they are struggling with childcare and offer to adjust hours, the companies said.
Make job postings clear: The top five things workers look for in a new job is a starting hourly wage, opportunities for advancement, flexible schedules, health benefits, paid-time off and information about company culture, according to Black Box/Snagajob. These offerings, as well as any hiring incentives, should be clear and apparent in job postings, the companies said. Making pay rates transparent from the beginning has also helped boost job applications.
Appeal to younger job seekers: A majority of workers in both limited- and full-service restaurants are 16- to 24-years-old, according to Black Box/Snagajob, so job descriptions and work environments should be attractive to them, the companies said. Setting up an employee referral program can also boost applicant rates, as they have a hire rate five times higher than other applicants, the companies said.
Article top image credit: Joe Raedle via Getty Images
The restaurant labor crisis won't end in 2022. But it's improving.
Quits are high, but hires are higher, signaling a slow recovery this year for restaurants who can offer competitive pay, benefits and culture.
By: Aneurin Canham-Clyne• Published Jan. 27, 2022
David Nayfeld didn't want to risk reopening Che Fico, the independent Italian restaurant he co-owns in San Francisco, for most of the pandemic. Labor was hard to come by, and there was no guarantee new COVID-19 variants or restrictions wouldn't gut the business.
Before the coronavirus crisis, Nayfeld's operation employed about 100 workers. When it finally reopened fully in late October, that number was closer to 60. Nayfeld was unable to bring staffing up to previous levels because it takes a long time to find workers who fit the restaurant's culture and have the soft skills needed for their jobs.
Then from December to January, a quarter of his workers contracted the virus.
"The worst thing possible has happened," Nayfeld said.
"When you look at restaurant industry sales growth in the second half of 2021, that sales level basically remained essentially flat from July on," Riehle said. "The same is also true for restaurant industry employment."
The delta and omicron variants have dealt the restaurant industry a serious blow. The surge in coronavirus cases in late December drove down sales by more than half at nearly 60% of 1,200 restaurants surveyed by the Independent Restaurant Coalition. OpenTable data also shows a gradual fall in on-premise dining traffic in December compared to the same period two years ago.
Labor in the foodservice space has similarly dragged. About 650,000 fewer workers are currently employed in foodservice than in January 2020, and the sector has seen only gradual increases in employment since July 2021, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Meanwhile, the NRA expects consumers' disposable income, adjusted for inflation, to shrink in 2022 in the absence of further stimulus from the federal government. This decline in spending power would lead consumers to be choosier, even though diners still want to go to restaurants, Riehle said. Flat sales and flat demand, he indicated, could mean flat employment.
Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, expects the headwinds caused by the omicron variant to be less persistent than what followed the delta variant, as case loads may fall faster, and omicron is likely milder than delta. Despite increased turnover, Gould noted, hiring has also kept pace with separations.
"We've seen record high numbers of quits in the last couple of months," Gould said. "And yet, hires are keeping up."
The number of workers employed in foodservice increased by about 40,000 between November and December, according to BLS data. Gould said the impact of the omicron variant on jobs would not be fully clear until BLS data for January comes out next month.
"We're gonna see [declining to flat jobs growth] in January, and maybe even February, because of omicron. But I hope that we will get on the other side of that and continue to see job growth over the months following," Gould said.
2022 is likely to see a gradual increase in the number of workers employed in foodservice, driven by recovering sales and improved offerings from restaurant employers, said Ted Lynch, managing director for restaurant banking at Bank of America.
"There'll be a gradual pickup, the bodies will come back online, [labor] expenses will come back up on a per person, hourly basis," Lynch said. "But hopefully there'll be a natural process where things get smoothed out."
Nayfeld is less optimistic. Independent restaurants, especially those that did not receive Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants, have faced mounting supply costs and rising rent — pushing many to take on large amounts of debt just to stay open. The uncertainty of the labor market will hurt independents more than major brands, Nayfeld said.
"We are dealing also with a historically challenging labor force," Nayfeld said. "People are worried about our industry. People genuinely think to themselves, 'Should I go back to work at a restaurant? What if that restaurant has to lay me off again?'"
Benefits, wages and safety are key to retaining workers. But many operators are struggling.
High turnover, a relatively low unemployment rate and the reluctance of workers to enter the restaurant industry has put upward pressure on wages, with many restaurants turning to wage hikes or new benefits to attract and retain talent. Chili's parent company, Brinker International, is boosting hourly pay to $18 an hour including tips by 2023, and is focusing on filling managerial roles with internal candidates. Starbucks has accelerated ongoing wage increases, and other major chains have rolled out signing bonuses and new benefits.
A combination of increased compensation and better benefits could attract more hourly workers, but that's a tall order for many independent operators. And many workers are looking for employers who offer something beyond higher pay, according to Lynch.
The companies that are succeeding in attracting new workers, Lynch said, are those trying to create a fun work environment and build a shared company culture alongside opportunities for professional growth.
Sekou Siby, president and CEO of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit focused on organizing restaurant workers, agrees that wage gains alone haven't been sufficient to draw workers in.
"Workers are not benefiting from the wage increase because prices are actually going up," Siby said. "It is driving the workers out of the restaurant industry."
Siby said restaurants are competing with other employers for low-wage workers, including Amazon, which offers $15 an hour. The risks of contracting COVID-19 has also made some employees wary of returning to work in restaurants at the prevailing wage, Siby said.
"Businesses are not thinking, restaurants especially are not thinking, of increasing wages based on the amount of risk," Siby said.
"Workers are not benefiting from the wage increase because prices are actually going up. It is driving the workers out of the restaurant industry."
President and CEO, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United
Nayfeld argued that without a refill of the RRF — which closed to applications in May — it will be difficult for independent restaurants to prioritize worker safety and do right by employees if businesses shut down due to COVID-19 case surges.
"Sometimes things are bigger than the business," Nayfeld said. "People's safety is bigger than the business. But that's … why we need the federal government to step up and do their part to allow us to continue making good choices."
Employers who respond to the shortage by asking more of their workers may risk driving people out of the industry, Gould said.
"If they're … making people come to work when they [are] positive [for] COVID-19 or [have] COVID-19 symptoms because they're concerned about not having enough workers, then maybe they should be doing other things to attract and retain workers," Gould said. "Maybe they can attract other workers to fill those slots, and pay more and provide better working conditions and paid sick days."
Companies that have historically managed to keep turnover low have performed the best during the pandemic, Lynch said. Nayfeld said his restaurant has managed to retain some of its workers largely thanks to goodwill he accrued by offering paid sick leave, covering the cost of health insurance for laid off workers and paying for his employees’ COVID-19 testing. Research from One Fair Wage indicates that paid sick leave, better health insurance and other benefits could keep workers from leaving the foodservice industry.
A shift toward off-premise dining and labor-saving technology could improve labor productivity or reduce staffing needs, Lynch said. The cost savings that come with these pivots have allowed the industry as a whole to remain profitable.
"Everybody was forced to make themselves more profitable," Lynch said. "It'll be baby steps to get back to where we were, in terms of real full employment."
Article top image credit: Joe Raedle via Getty Images
Starbucks union drive tops 100 stores, Arizona ballot count postponed
The Starbucks Workers United movement is still too small to bring corporate to the bargaining table on a national scale, experts say, but its momentum may spark change.
By: Aneurin Canham-Clyne• Published Feb. 17, 2022
On Thursday, Starbucks Workers United's campaign reached 101 stores in 26 states, meaning about one in every 100 corporate-owned U.S. Starbucks cafes has announced a public union drive. That momentum, which accelerated in December in New York, continues despite Starbucks' efforts to stall votes.
On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board postponed a scheduled union vote count at a Mesa, Arizona, Starbucks. The NLRB was unable to reach a decision on Starbucks' request for review of the NLRB regional director's election order.
Region 28 of the NLRB, based in Phoenix, will impound the unopened ballots until the board reaches a decision. The votes were cast by workers at the Power Road and Baseline Road Starbucks in Mesa via a mail-in election conducted between Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. The vote count was originally scheduled for Wednesday.
"[Starbucks is] going to lose the requests for review," Ian Hayes, a lawyer for Starbucks Workers United, said at a union press conference Wednesday afternoon. "They just wanted to try to break the workers' momentum by depriving them of the victory today."
Starbucks has argued that workers shouldn't vote on a store-by-store basis, but instead vote by regional markets, NLRB records show. Hayes claims this argument contradicts standing labor law, and labor experts interviewed by Restaurant Dive agree that store-by-store elections have been an NLRB precedent for over 50 years.
The campaign at the Mesa store began in earnest when a manager was allegedly terminated after sending documents outlining the company's anti-union efforts to Starbucks Workers United, Michelle Hejduk, a shift supervisor and organizing committee member at the cafe, said. Starbucks disputed this claim, arguing the manager in question, Brittany Harrison, was not fired, but instead resigned.
A few days after Harrison stopped working at Starbucks, Hejduk said store employees made contact with Workers United and secured majority support among staff to join the union. Then, management held meetings where managers asked employees to vote against unionization, Hejduk said. Starbucks also sent several anti-union text messages to workers at the Mesa store throughout the election.
"Every other day at noon we get a text message [from Starbucks on] our phones that tells us 'We want you to vote no… so the tension that this union has caused will end'," Hejduk said. "There actually is absolutely no tension in our store."
The Mesa store was the first Starbucks outside of the Buffalo area to file for a union election. It filedon Nov. 18, about three weeks before the union won representation at two Buffalo-area stores.
Eighty-seven stores have petitioned for elections with the NLRB but have not held elections yet. Four stores have voted — with the union winning two and Starbucks winning one election — and 10 have announced campaigns but the NLRB doesn’t yet have records showing they filed for elections.
Starbucks' response has differed store by store
Starbucks' response to stores petitioning for unions has varied. For instance, while Rossann Williams, president of Starbucks North America, spent much of the Buffalo Starbucks stores' early campaigns on the ground speaking with workers, executives did not conduct listening sessions at the Mesa cafe, Hejduk said. The company sent five new managers to Mesa, Hejduk said, because the store had just one assistant store manager after Harrison was fired. But those managers left after voting concluded onFeb. 2, she said.
Starbucks debuted a website at one.starbucks.com on Monday explaining its anti-union stance. The page also includes a "10 things to know about a union" section detailing how long it typically takes unions and employers to reach a contract and consequences that come with unionization, including fees and difficulty swapping shifts with non-union stores.
"We don't believe having a union will meaningfully change or solve the problems you've identified in your stores," Starbucks' site reads. "Every success we have ever achieved has been in direct partnership with one another."
Union organizers created a similarly named website, onestarbucks.com, which redirects to Starbucks Workers United's page. This marks the union’s latest move to undermine Starbucks’s anti-union efforts. In Chicago on Feb. 1, pro-union picketers stood outside one of the unionizing Starbucks locations while managers inside spoke with workers about the union.
"It would not even touch [Starbucks'] balance sheet to shut down 100 stores. They probably shut down 100 stores anyway, every year, because they aren't functioning."
Professor of history, University of California Santa Barbara
Starbucks also fired seven members of a union organizing committee in Memphis, Tennessee, on Feb. 8. Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesperson, said these workers let a media team into the store after hours to conduct an interview. Allowing unauthorized individuals into stores after operating hours is a fireable offense, Borges said, adding the firing was not an act of retaliation — though Starbucks Workers United considers it union busting.
The union compared the interview at the Memphis Starbucks to the after-hours meetings Starbucks has asked workers to attend, and alleges Starbucks has not consistently enforced its policies, per a press release emailed to Restaurant Dive.
"Starbucks is using policies that have never been enforced… to fire workers," the union stated.
"We as partners should not be afraid to speak to the media, to organize our stores, or to fight for our right to have a union," Beto Sanchez, one of the fired workers, said in a statement.
Starbucks Workers United organized protests in several cities, including Seattle and New York, to protest the firing of the Memphis workers. Public records indicatethe workers have filed an unfair labor practices charge through the NLRB.
The union has reached flagship stores
Disputes between Starbucks and the union haven't hurt organizer momentum, however.
The campaign reached New York City on Feb. 10, when workers at three locations in New York City and one store on Long Island filed for union elections, NLRB records show. Among those workers were manufacturing employees at the company's Reserve Roastery in the Big Apple. In Seattle, a second roastery filed for an election on Valentine's Day, leaving the Chicago Reserve Roastery as the only one of Starbucks three flagship stores in the U.S. to not file for a union election.
Miguel Pérez-Glassner, a barista at the New York City Reserve Roastery, said he supported the union drive because it would give workers a greater say on the shop floor.
"I care about movements that want to make a place where the workplace is democratized, where people are able to, you know, figure out what is best together," Pérez-Glassner said. "People in management positions don't necessarily know what's going on with people on the floor… that's a big disconnect… that collective bargaining, and unionizing would really, really help people with."
Pérez-Glassner emphasized the union drive is not about fighting Starbucks, at least not for him.
"We're not trying to tear anybody down. … We want to be able to have a seat at the table," Pérez-Glassner said.
The union has gained political support, as well. New York lawmakers — including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Jerry Nadler — signed a letter asking Starbucks to sign on to the fair elections principles proposed by Starbucks Workers United. This proposal would give union organizers the ability to hold meetings on company time.
Political pressure has also mounted in Starbucks' hometown of Seattle, where Kshama Sawant, a socialist and city council member, introduced a resolution supporting Starbucks Workers United. The Seattle City Council passed the resolution on Feb. 8. The city has emerged as a stronghold in the union fight, with three stores filing for union elections alongside the Seattle Reserve Roastery. A fifth store in Everett, Washington, has also filed for an election.
Delay weakens unions, but Workers United may have a path to minority bargaining
To pump the brakes on this cultural and store-level momentum, Starbucks generally files similar objections to the NLRB when cafes petition for a union election, according to labor experts. Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor specializing in labor history at University of California Santa Barbara, said this is part of a time-tested strategy that capitalizes on the naturally high turnover in fast food businesses.
"Delay is absolutely vital, and a winning strategy. Just delay, delay, delay whatever you're doing, whether it's the vote or the union contract or anything. Just delay it, and in a year, half a year, half the workforce is gone," Lichtenstein said.
But Lichtenstein said the composition of Starbucks' workforce, and the demands of pro-union employees, weaken that strategy. When workers only want better pay or different benefits, it's easy for a company to stave off a challenge by changing specific conditions in compensation, he said. But when workers want a union to gain more power in the workplace, it's harder for companies to outmaneuver the union organizers.
Starbucks, which offers higher education benefits, may attract younger, educated workers, a demographic that could be more interested in unionization, Lichtenstein said. Many of the workers Restaurant Dive has interviewed are students or have college degrees, and several are self-described communists.
"It's the same sort of social cultural age category as graduate students … who are unionizing [or] young web-based journalists and game [developers]. ... It's a kind of social strata," Lichtenstein said.
The union may be able to win enough stores and public support to have some bargaining power even if it doesn't win a majority of Starbucks stores, Lichtenstein said. He cited Costco as an example of a company where the union represents a minority of workers. The union fears the company could resist a strike and maintain labor peace, avoiding a company-wide union fight while attracting workers with marginally higher pay than competitors, Lichtenstein said.
If unionization drives higher wages, this could help retain and attract workers. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows foodservice workers represented by unions earned about $118 dollars a week more than unrepresented workers.
But Starbucks Workers United is nowhere near the level of organization needed to bring Starbucks to the bargaining table on a national scale, Lichtenstein cautioned.
"It would not even touch [Starbucks'] balance sheet to shut down 100 stores," Lichtenstein said. "They probably shut down 100 stores anyway, every year, because they aren't functioning."
Prior to major shutdowns due to COVID-19, Starbucks had closed more than 100 stores in a single year. In 2018, Starbucks announced it would close 150 underperforming stores in 2019.
Still, public outcry could constrain Starbucks actions, Lichtenstein said, especially if unions become more popular, or if consumers begin to shun companies with a reputation for union busting.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of Starbucks stores that have public union organizing drives. Currently, 101 stores have public union organizing drives.
Article top image credit: Scott Olson via Getty Images
Behind the scenes of Starbucks workers' first successful union drive
A Buffalo Starbucks store secured a majority union vote on Dec. 9 after two years of organizing. But union experts don't think the win will be "a wildfire sweeping the American labor market."
By: Aneurin Canham-Clyne• Published Dec. 16, 2021
The morning after the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks voted to unionize, customers lined up faster than drinks could be made, and nearly every table was full. Some patrons asked about the union. At the register, one customer gave his name as "the Union Makes Us Strong," another as "Solidarity Forever," and a third as "Workers United." Some of the store's employees wore union pins.
One day prior, on Dec. 9, an official for the National Labor Relations Board counted ballots for three separate elections at three Buffalo, New York area stores. Elmwood was the first location that was counted, and the only one where the union won an undisputed majority.
A group of workers from the organizing committee and a few union officials watched the count unfold from the committee's office on the fifth floor of an old Ford factory. Since late August, that office served as the nerve center of a campaign that drew national attention, and led some industry observers to predict dramatic changes in the American labor movement. But the course of the campaign shows restaurant labor is still constrained by the same legal and economic forces as it was before the pandemic.
Successful union drives, at least those resulting in NLRB elections, tend to follow a multi-stage process, with a period of secret or underground organizing followed by the initial public drive, which is then followed by the electoral campaign. After the election comes a period of contract negotiation. This can take many years. In Starbucks' case, it already has.
The seed for a union was planted in 2019
The union talk at Buffalo-area Starbucks stores didn't start in August 2021. Richard Bensinger, a professional organizer who helped Starbucks Workers United run a formal campaign, said many of the early members of the organizing committee were inspired by the drive to unionize Spot coffee, a Buffalo-area chain, in 2019.
In a Dec. 6 conversation with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Alexis Rizzo, a shift supervisor at the Cheektowaga Starbucks store and an organizing committee member, said discussions predated the Spot campaign two years ago, but shifts in working conditions and economic conditions made it possible to envision a successful drive at Starbucks this year.
"There's been some talk of unionizing among Starbucks partners since the day I started in 2015. But it was always a pipe dream. Because as hourly employees of Starbucks with such high turnover, we always felt disposable," Rizzo said. It wasn't until the pandemic worsened conditions on the shop floor and the labor market tightened in early 2021 that conditions were ripe for the campaign, Rizzo said.
These early conversations, and the relationships between workers before a campaign, are important factors in creating what labor historian Gabriel Winant describes as the mesh of solidarity. Winant, an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, said strong relationships between employees enable pro-union workers to trust each other under pressure applied by employers.
"It's easy to have those conversations when you're friends with people."
Starbucks worker and organizing committee member
"It helps a lot to have…organizing leaders who either are drawn from that workforce and have organic leadership within it, or if they don't, at least are kind of recognizable," Winant said.
In July and August, Rizzo and other early leaders of the Starbucks Workers United organizing committee quietly built support among their coworkers and recruited them to join the organizing committee, which now numbers about 130 workers.
"The basic principle of the organizing committee is that it's good to have workers organizing each other as much as possible," Winant said. This keeps the union from appearing as an alien third party, as unions are often depicted by management. Further, Winant said, the period before a campaign goes public or petitions for an election gives the union the ability to build up majority support.Kimberly Cook, a member of extension faculty at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, echoed Winant's emphasis on organizing before a campaign goes public.
"The ideal is that you've done a lot of those conversations before the employer even knows it's happening," Cook said.
Once strong enough — or once discovered by management — the organizing committee takes the campaign public. At Starbucks, it seems the organizing committee managed to take the company by surprise.
"Corporate didn't actually find out until about 24 hours before we went public," Rizzo said. According to the organizing committee, the union had majority support at all three stores when it first petitioned for an election.
Starbucks put pressure on stores mulling unionizing, employees say
As soon as the campaign went public, workers with the organizing committee say they faced a sustained corporate campaign to wear down support for the union. At the heart of that pressure, workers said, was Starbucks' ability to control, surveil and access employees throughout their shifts.
"There's never a conversation that isn't getting overheard," Danka Dragic, a shift supervisor at a Cheektowaga, New York Starbucks store said. "I can't have open and candid conversations with my partners… they're only hearing from the company, they're only getting the anti-union works."
The first action the union organizers took once their campaign went public was to ask Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to sign a pledge agreeing to a set of principles the union argued was necessary to ensure a fair election. The union asked Starbucks not to make implicit threats, and to grant the union equal time at meetings held on company time, as well as equal ability to post pro-union information in break rooms and on bulletin boards.Johnson did not sign those principles.
James Skretta, a Strabucks employee at the Sheridan-Bailey store in Amherst, New York, told Restaurant Dive that subsequently, a flood of Starbucks support managers kept an ear out for what workers were saying. These support managers are still present throughout the Buffalo area as of Dec. 12, Brian Murray, a pro-union worker at a Starbucks in Lancaster, New York, said.
"We have managers wearing headsets, listening in on conversations. We have partners who are pro-union who are being isolated on the floor, to make it difficult for them to have conversations with their co-workers. And all of these things are obviously meant to intimidate us," Skretta said in a Dec. 8 interview.
"All it is, is scare mongering."
Starbucks shift supervisor and organizing committee member.
A spokesperson for Starbucks denied that the support managers, who he called support partners, were there to listen in on pro-union workers or disrupt union organizing. By contrast, the spokesperson said the support managers were there to improve training and offer extra help at understaffed stores.
Company higher-ups have had a number of meetings with individual workers. Dragic, and other organizing committee members, said the company was using those meetings to test the commitment of pro-union workers, and to single out shop floor leaders in the union drive.
Dragic met with Rossann Williams, Regional Vice President Allyson Peck and Regional Director of Operations Deanna Pusatier at the Courtyard by Marriott Buffalo Airport in September. Dragic asked Williams, in person, to sign the fair election principles drafted by the union. Williams declined.
Brian Murray, a pro-union worker at a Starbucks in Lancaster, New York, said Rossann Williams came into his store in mid-September while he was working the drive-thru. Murray felt Williams singled him out, shouting his name across the store before greeting other workers, and questioning him while he worked. Murray also asked Williams to sign the union's fair election principles. Williams again declined.
Williams also met with workers who oppose the union drive, like Dee Dee Clohessy, who works at a Buffalo-area Starbucks that has not filed for an election. Clohessy has been with the company for 18 years, long enough to see the children of regular customers grow up and start working for Starbucks. She said Williams was receptive to her feedback about the insufficient level of training for new partners, which Clohessy said often left new employees unprepared and overwhelmed.
In later meetings, Dragic said Starbucks implicitly threatened the benefits it provides employees by giving workers examples of benefits that could be lost in the course of collective bargaining. Dragic, and other partners, said the company told workers they could face serious consequences for violating Service Employees International Union's constitution once they had unionized.
"The more replaceable workers are, and understand themselves to be, the less likely they are to assert themselves."
Assistant professor of U.S. History, University of Chicago
Starbucks alsodirectly asked workers to vote against the union and brought workers to larger meetings where they shared anti-union talking points, workers on the organizing committee said.
According to Dragic and Murray, the pressure on pro-union workers didn't end with surveillance or one-on-one meetings with executives. Starbucks also began enforcing rules that managers had previously declined to enforce — such as dress code and language requirements — to target pro-union workers, they said.
"If you were wearing appropriate shoes and you looked put together, if you were wearing like a red shirt outside of a Friday, it wasn't going to be the end of the world. Now it's a write-up," Dragic said.
Murray was written up for wearing a pro-union shirt in November, and sent home from several shifts for wearing the shirt. A spokesperson for Starbucks, which has not disciplined workers for wearing union pins, emphasized that Murray had knowingly violated the dress code.
One of Dragic's pro-union co-workers, who had never received a write up before, received a final written warning for swearing under her breath in the back of the house.
"All it is, is scare mongering," Dragic said.
Corporate inflated voter rolls with anti-union employees, workers say
At Cheektowaga, the union filed with unanimous support, according to the organizing committee. NLRB documents show the union believed there were 21 workers at the Cheektowaga store on Aug. 30, when the petition for an election was submitted to the board. By the time the election took place, in November, the NLRB said there were more than 46 eligible voters.
A Starbucks spokesperson told Restaurant Dive that all of the workers the company included on its voter lists met the NLRB's requirements to count as employees at the Cheektowaga store at the time of the election. Two stores in the Buffalo market, however — one on Niagara Falls Boulevard and another at the corner of Walden Avenue and Anderson Road — closed temporarily, and their workers were sent to Cheektowaga. At least the Niagara store was closed for remodels, Cochran said.
"I didn't get a ballot. Nobody at my store got a ballot, I would've voted yes."
Starbucks worker and organizing committee member.
Starbucks allowed the diverted Niagara Falls employees to vote in the election, but the Walden/Anderson workers were barred from participating, he said.
"We really had no explanation for it," Colin Cochran, an organizing committee member from the Walden/Anderson store, said. According to Cochran, the Walden/Anderson store had a reputation for supporting the union, while the Niagara Falls Boulevard store did not.
"I might have worked there even a little bit longer than Niagara Falls Boulevard people. And... it wasn't just me, it was a significant group of people from my store," Cochran said.
"I didn't get a ballot. Nobody at my store got a ballot," Cochran said. "I would've voted yes."
The crowding at the Cheektowaga store reached absurd proportions, according to Cochran. Dragic, a shift supervisor at Cheektowaga, developed COVID-19 around the time of the peak staffing at that store, when more than twice the normal number of workers were on the clock.
"That was directly following having like 16 to 20 people in our store at a time," Dragic said. "I had not been exposed to 20 people in a group setting ever since the pandemic began."
Organizing outside the workplace helped secure a win, workers say
Ultimately, the organizing committee won an election at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks, and managed to take a commanding — though not yet decisive due to ballot challenges — lead at the Starbucks in Cheektowaga.
Only at the Camp Road location in Hamburg, New York, did the unionization effort fail.
Before support managers entered the scene, according to union organizers, the store had filed with 80% support, which would translate to about 15 yes votes. Ultimately, the store voted 12 to 8 against the union, with 5 voters abstaining. Three votes at this store were challenged and one was declared void. Several ballots from Camp Road — potentially enough to sway the election — also went missing when a worker attempted to hand deliver them to the NLRB's office, claims union lawyer Ian Hayes.
So how did a few dozen workers and a couple of staff organizers for Starbucks Workers United, manage to do what no union had successfully done at any of the 8,000 corporate Starbucks locations in the United States?
"It doesn't matter how much money they spend, we're gonna win."
Starbucks worker and organizing committee member
For Dragic, the campaign gave her a sense of meaning and community that was missing from her work.
"Prior to that, I swear for like a year I came home from work and I sat in my house. And I would talk to my roommate about how awful work was," Dragic said. "This is the first time that I'm, connecting with people that I'm working with at a level of… relating to each other on being human."
Other organizing committee members echoed this sentiment. According to some organizers, the campaign was forced to focus on organizing outside of work, at places where workers could talk without being overheard.
"We've kind of been forced to try to meet people outside of work in a lot of cases," Casey Moore, an organizing committee member, told Restaurant Dive. "It's easy to have those conversations when you're friends with people."
Community support also played a role. Dragic said customers would come in and voice support for the union.
India Walton, a democratic socialist who won Buffalo's Democratic primary but was defeated in the general mayoral election, was a vocal supporter. Support came from outside of Buffalo, too. Senators Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand were all vocal supporters of the campaign, and multiple partners said Starbucks workers around the country would call in online orders for black coffee with pro-union messages.
Outside support, Winant says, plays a secondary but important role in reinforcing union campaigns.
The general macroeconomic conditions also played a critical role. As Rizzo told Sen. Sanders, the campaign only really kicked off in the summer of 2021, when the labor market was at its tightest.
"The more replaceable workers are, and understand themselves to be, the less likely they are to assert themselves," Winant said.
What this means for the QSR labor market
Some supporters of Starbucks Workers United were quick to call the victory at Elmwood historic, and to predict that it could herald a new day for organized labor in the U.S.
On Dec. 13, two Starbucks stores in Boston sent a letter to Kevin Johnson announcing their intent to unionize and urging him to agree to a set of fair elections principles. That brought the total number of Starbucks stores filing for NLRB elections to nine.
Cook said it would make strategic sense for Workers United to target markets with a high density of Starbucks shops.
"Take on New York City, for God's sake. There's [a] Starbucks on every corner and they're just filled with young progressive people," Cook said.
In terms of the Buffalo union drive's potential impact on organized labor, Winant said, "it makes sense to expect some positive reverberations in this and related industries, but not a wildfire sweeping the American labor market."
But Winant said the structural conditions of the QSR segment — its high turnover, employment split between corporate stores and franchisees and the ease of replacing fast food workers — would all constrain future organizing efforts that follow the Starbucks win. Within 6 months, the labor market could look completely different. The Federal Reserve, for example, has announced it will raise interest rates in 2022, which could increase unemployment, Winant said.
Starbucks also has a lot of power over contract negotiations, which could prove as important to future organizing as the elections process, but take years longer, according to Winant.
According to Cook, most union organizing drives never get a contract. Starbucks, Cook predicted, might drag out the negotiations. Winant said though it's hard to predict, negotiations could take at least a year if a contract is granted at all.
"They're not going to make it easy. They're going to try to drag it out, drag it out, and drag it out, so that people may never actually get a union contract… probably the majority of organizing drives end up never actually getting a contract," Cook said.
But on Dec. 9th, in the union office on the fifth floor of an old Ford factory, those problems did not seem so immediate. Surrounded by TV cameras, members of the organizing committee jumped up and down, and hugged each other when the Elmwood result was announced. They were subdued at the Camp Road vote result, but they still cheered at every yes vote. And when the yes vote took a commanding lead at Cheektowaga, they went wild again.
Soon, Dragic said, Starbucks employees will fill out bargaining surveys and get ready for the long struggle to negotiate a contract. To win a good contract at the Elmwood Starbucks, and potentially at the Cheektowaga Starbucks, would be another unprecedented victory for Starbucks Workers United.
"It doesn't matter what they throw at us," RJ Rebmann, a worker at the Cheektowaga location, said. "It doesn't matter how much money they spend, we're gonna win… When workers unite, when we show them the kind of power that we actually have, when we organize, there's no way that they can win."
Article top image credit: Aneurin E Canham-Clyne/Restaurant Dive
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