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Airport Starbucks stores pay black workers less than whites, union group claims

Starbucks workers at some of the coffee chain's airport locations claim they face racial and other forms of discrimination.

Across airport Starbucks in the U.S., the median wage for black baristas was $1.85 less than for white baristas, according to an analysis of wage data for more than 2,000 unionized Starbucks airport workers from February to October 2019, according to Unite Here, a labor group trying to organize the company's airport stores. 

At Houston's George Bush Intercontinental airport, the gap is even greater, Unite Here said — a median of $2.84 less for black baristas than for their counterparts.

Some Starbucks workers also claim to have been discriminated against in other ways. Jay Kelly, a transgender barista at Orlando International Airport, told CBS MoneyWatch that a manager openly mocked him before customers, referring to him as a "she" instead of as a "he," Kelly said. "I went to the bathroom and cried my eyes out." 

HMSHost, a food service company that operates Starbucks stores at 27 U.S. airports and employs 23,000 workers at airports across the U.S. and in Canada, dismissed Unite Here's claims and accused the union of spreading false information to help their negotiations. 

"We do not discriminate against any associate based on race, ethnicity, national origin, LGBTQ status or any other reason," the company stated. "Our fair treatment policy ensures an open and inclusive environment."

Sleeping on the floor

A separate Unite Here survey found that many Starbucks airport workers, who earn an average of $13.12 an hour, faced financial hardship, including homelessness. 

Kelly, who earns $11.85 an hour, said he struggles to make ends meet. "I can't afford to buy myself any food or bathing or hygiene products. It all goes toward bills and to help my mom out," said the 25-year-old, who has held the job three years. 

Kelly also said he previously had to sleep on an airport floor on several occasions because he could not afford to take a car service home after a late shift, noting that the bus service he normally takes to commute to work had stopped running for the day.

Kelly and other Starbucks airport workers are classified as being employed by HMSHost, not the coffee giant. A spokesperson for Starbucks referred questions to HMSHost, a subsidiary of Italy's AutoGrill Group, which operates in 31 countries and generated roughly $5.2 billion in 2018.

"Good, entry level-jobs"

HMSHost said the Unite Here findings are misleading. "Pay rates are not in any way determined by race and ethnicity," but are based on experience and time with the company, HMSHost stated. Pay rates for union-represented workers are negotiated during the collective bargaining process, it added. The Unite Here pay poll involved only 12% of HMSHost's unionized workers, and just 6% of its workforce overall, the company noted.

"We are concerned about the well-being of our associates, and we will respond and try and resolve any issues when it is brought to our attention. HMSHost offers good, entry-level jobs that provide a pathway to the workforce for thousands of our associates," an HMSHost spokesperson said in an email. "Unlike some entry-level jobs, we offer a comprehensive package of benefits, including health insurance, meals while working, paid time off, educational support, training and professional development opportunities."

On its website, Starbucks touts more than three decades of LGBTQ support and advocacy. The coffee chain also says that it has achieved pay equity for women and men and people of all races performing similar work in the U.S.

Advocacy groups including the National LGBTQ Task Force, One Orlando Alliance, African Communities Together and the Transgender Law Center planned this week to call on Starbucks to demand that HMSHost address the issues raised by Unite Here.

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