Liberte Locke, a 32-year-old "barista" at a Starbucks (SBUX) in New York City, is fed up.
"Starbucks' attitude is that there's always someone else who can do the job," she said in running through her complaints about life at the java giant.
If that isn't necessarily the consensus among Starbucks workers, interviews with nine current and former baristas at the company make clear it's not an isolated opinion, either. Even those who say they like their job paint a picture of a business that underpays front-line workers, enforces work rules arbitrarily, and too often fails to strike a balance between corporate goals and employee needs.
Of course, such complaints are nothing new in retail, where low pay and erratic schedules are the norm. But by its own account, Starbucks is no ordinary company and is ostensibly a far cry from the fast-food outlets now facing a nationwide uprising by employees tired of working for peanuts.
That's evident in the company's recruitment pitch. Starbucks invites job-seekers to "become a part of something bigger and inspire positive change in the world," describing it as a chance to discover a "deep sense of purpose."
That image suffered a serious blow last month after The New York Times vividly chronicled a Starbucks worker struggling with the company's scheduling practices. The story, which centered on a 22-year-old barista and single mother, amounted to a public relations nightmare for Starbucks. Perhaps not coincidentally, within days of the story's publication top executives were promising reform.
In a memo to employees earlier this month, for instance, Chief Operating Officer Troy Alstead vowed to "transform the U.S. partner experience," referring to Starbucks' more than 130,000 baristas. Inviting worker feedback, he said Starbucks will examine its approach to employee pay, revisit its dress code, make it easier for people to ask for time off, and consider other changes aimed at helping baristas balance work and their personal lives.
Among other changes, the company said it would end the practice of "clopening," when an employee responsible for closing a store late at night is also assigned to open it early in the morning.
"We recognize that we can do more for our partners who wear the apron every day," he wrote.
Although Starbucks workers welcome this pledge to respect the apron, they fear the company is more intent on dousing the PR flames than on genuinely improving employees' experience. After the retailer last month sent an email to workers outlining possible solutions to the kind of scheduling problems and related issues detailed by the Times, a group of baristas gave the proposal a C- and posted online a marked-up version of the memo listing their own demands (see image above).
"We hope you're ready for a commitment to give us schedules that don't mess with taking care of kids, going to school or holding onto that second job we need because Sbux wages don't make ends meet," wrote the baristas, who are working with a union-backed labor group, the Center for Popular Democracy.
Despite the recent media focus on Starbucks, the company's labor practices are generally no worse than those of many large retailers. In some ways they're better, with the company offering health care to part-time, as well as full-time, workers; unusually generous 401(k) matching contributions; annual stock grants to employees; and tuition reimbursement.
Starbucks highlights such benefits as an example of its commitment to employees. "Sharing success with one another has been core to the company's heritage for more than 40 years," Alstead said in the September memo.
Meanwhile, some baristas say they enjoy their work and feel valued by Starbucks. "It's a decent place to work, and my manager and co-workers are great," said one employee who asked not to be identified.
But other current and former workers claim Starbucks has changed in recent years, saying that corporate leaders' intense focus on slashing costs has short-circuited its professed commitment to workers. Mostly, they say Starbucks doesn't listen to employees and even punishes those who identify problems.
"The biggest problem is that baristas don't have a voice," said Sarah Madden, a former Starbucks barista who left the company this spring after two years with the coffee vendor. "They can't speak to issues that they know exist. Workers know how to fix them, but when [they] speak up there are serious repercussions -- your hours get cut, you're transferred to another store or isolated from other people."
Employees interviewed for this article said one result of Starbucks' cost-containment push is that stores are frequently understaffed, hurting customer service and forcing managers to scramble to find staff. That problem is common across the big-box stores that dominate the retail sector, experts said.
"On the one hand, retailers overhire, but they're also understaffed, so everybody's running around and then there aren't enough people on the floor," said Susan Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago and an expert in work-life issues. "Companies are effectively loading all the risk onto workers so that they're not the ones incurring the risks inherent in business."
Starbucks denies that its stores are short-staffed. "We're proud of the level of service we provide in our stores," said Zack Hutson, a spokesman for the company. "We know that the connection our partners have with customers is the foundation of the Starbucks experience. It wouldn't be in our best interest. We want our customers to have the appropriate service level when they come to our stores."
To be sure, Starbucks is hardly the only U.S. corporate giant to keep a gimlet eye on its bottom line -- among Fortune 500 companies that approach to management is the rule, not the exception, and CEOs across the land defend it as an inviolable fiduciary duty to shareholders.
But baristas say Starbucks' focus on profits and cost-cutting has increasingly led its leadership to tune workers out. Locke, who has worked for the company since 2006 and who earns roughly $16,000 a year, said she yearned for the Starbucks of old.
"When I started they had a training program and taught you how to be a coffee expert. There was more of a culture of supporting each other as co-workers. Store managers were sympathetic. I really enjoyed it."
Asked why she stays at Starbucks, Locke said her employment options are limited because she lacks a college education and because her only professional experience is in retail.
According to workers, the best thing Starbucks can do for its apron-wearers is to raise their pay and offer full-time hours instead of the 20 to 30 hours that most employees work.
Samantha Cole, a barista in Omaha, Neb., said she struggles to get by on her supervisor's salary of $11.25 an hour. Such pay may be better than what she would earn working for other retailers, but the 30-year-old mother of two say it's still not a living wage.
"I'm definitely not making enough money," said Cole, who has been with the company for six years. "A lot of us are right there with what fast-food workers are making."
Such frustrations are also evident in comments on the Facebook page Starbucks uses to communicate with employees and where it is asking baristas for input regarding the company's labor practices. Wrote one employee: "I've worked for the company for 7 years in January, and I don't make enough to support myself on one job so I work 2 jobs, 6 days a week.... I've seen a lot of amazing partners leave because they don't make enough."
Starbucks declined to disclose compensation data, citing competitive reasons and saying that pay varies widely according to workers' experience and where in the U.S. stores are located. It didn't respond to emails requesting clarification regarding other aspects of its labor policies.
It's worth noting that low pay isn't unique to Starbucks -- in retail it is the norm. As of 2012 (the latest year for which data is available), the median hourly income for retail salespeople is $10.29 per hour, or $21,410 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hourly pay for full-time retail workers range from a high of $14.42 to $9.61 for lower-paid people, according to Demos, a liberal-leaning think tank in New York. Part-timers typically make much less, with the average cashier earning $18,500 a year.
"Until [Starbucks] gives a living wage to every employee, they can't claim to be a good employer," Locke said, who added that it has been roughly two years since her last pay raise.
"Race to the bottom"
Another priority for baristas: stable, regular schedules. Like most large retailers, Starbucks uses scheduling software to try to match the number of workers it has in a store at any given time to the amount of business it gets. Workers also may be scheduled according to the sales they generate or their facility in promoting certain products. The technology also can enable other savings, such as limiting overtime.
For employees, however, that approach -- known as "just-in-time" or "on-call" scheduling -- often results in lower income and chaotic hours.
Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at City University of New York's Murphy Institute, characterizes the widespread adoption of scheduling and so-called workforce optimization technologies as a "new race to the bottom."
"Companies that have already reduced operating costs by making deals with irresponsible subcontractors and using the cheapest available materials are now cutting corners in the form of the 'just-in- time scheduling' of their workforce," she and her co-authors wrote in a recent report. "These 'lean' manufacturing practices take advantage of sophisticated software and an increasingly desperate workforce to cut labor costs to the bone."
By the same token, tighter control of worker schedules helps Starbucks contain payroll costs. But it also means employees who had expected to work a certain number of hours every week can see their schedules dramatically cut back and fluctuate wildly. The result? Smaller paychecks and a disturbance to family life.
"It makes it very hard for parents to participate in an intimate family routine and structure it in such a way that experts agree is good for children," Lambert said.
Irregular schedules also make it hard for workers who do need extra income to work a second job, schedule appointments and plan other aspects of their lives.
Baristas said Starbucks posts their schedule only days in advance and that they are often subject to change. Following the Times story, Starbucks said it would post schedules at least one week in advance. That's not enough time, several workers said, asking the company to provide at least two or three weeks notice, as retailers ranging from Walmart (WMT) and H&M to Victoria's Secret (LB) do.
Meanwhile, despite Starbucks' promise to end clopening, the practice continues, some workers said, although the company insists that this is only in cases when people request such shifts.
"Partners should never be required to work opening and closing shifts. That policy is clear," Starbucks' Hutson said, adding that the company is studying ways to give workers more input in their schedules. "If there are cases where that's not happening, we want to know about that."
Given the scrutiny on Starbucks, the company can count on baristas to do just that.