As Told To
Stories about the way the world works, in the words of people living in it.
Owen is a 25-year-old Starbucks barista in Philadelphia. He’s worked there for three years, on an increasingly part-time basis. Though most of his working hours prior to the pandemic were spent at a bakery elsewhere, he spoke with The Outline about working at Starbucks as part of “As Told To,” our ongoing series about how the coronavirus is reordering peoples’ lives.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
At first it was a lot of talking about how [the novel coronavirus] wasn’t a big deal. Not from company people, because there just really wasn’t a word from the top, but employees talking amongst themselves. [My coworkers] are a bit younger than me, mostly, in the 18-24 year old range, but a few older folks. People felt confident that it was just something where you had to wash your hands and be careful, and that because we’re younger, we didn’t have to really worry about it. The first action the company took [in early March] was to make it so that we’d stop taking customers’ cups.
My brother manages a different Starbucks. Our stores [had the same policies for awhile], although that changed in some interesting ways. To fast-forward a bit, the latest thing that’s happened is that all of the “cafe stores” have closed, but drive-thrus have stayed open. The interesting thing is that it seems like there are some exceptions. [My brother’s] store is closed, and only the drive-thrus are open in his area. — that’s a suburban area. But my store’s in the city;it’s open, but pickup-only now.
I got sick recently and haven’t been working for the last couple weeks. It’s possible I had [COVID-19]; I had mild symptoms for about two weeks. I don’t want to go back to work, so that I don’t spread it around or, if I didn’t have it, pick it up from other people.
I know that a lot of people have taken time off, and what Starbucks is offering is a 30-day paid leave, but it doesn’t seem like they have any intention of making that longer term. At my brother’s store they usually have 15 “partners” [Starbucks term for employees] and now it’s down to six.
The other place I work is also in service, but [that bakery] shut down quickly, which I think was smart, because so many people come in and out. If I went back to work at Starbucks, what would make me anxious is that everyones in close proximity no matter what you do. The drink preparation area is pretty small. I can’t imagine getting six feet of space, especially in the storage area, which is super cramped. The last time I talked to my assistant store manager on the phone, she was clearly right next to my store manager in [the storage area].
I am lucky that [the bakery] is being really responsible. They gave us one paycheck, and another one’s coming on Friday, and this covers the gap until the unemployment benefits come in. It would be impossible, unrealistic and insane to expect people to be working in close proximity to each other in order to make sweet coffee drinks. Luckily, because I started feeling unwell, I started stocking up on food and so I’m actually not worried about things like that because I planned ahead. But I’m worried about other people.
I imagine a lot of my coworkers are still working because it’s still open, you know? If there was a plan to, say, close the store, put things on pause, and furlough people, it would be different. It’s interesting because at [the bakery] job I feel like they handled this very smart and said, “Okay, we’re furloughing you, here's how you apply for unemployment,” and I don’t think there’s any plan in the works [at Starbucks] to furlough anyone. And after these 30 days, if you don’t lay employees off or furlough them, you can't make the money unless you go into work.
I’m worried about my coworkers at [Starbucks] especially. I know one specifically… her family owns a small store, like a corner store, and her income supplements the family income. What happens when a lot fewer people start going to their store? Will they be able to keep food on the table with a couple thousand-dollar checks?