Starbucks made the headlines and got some great press earlier this year for extending parental leave to hourly workers, but most people missed the inequality in the fine print: the coffee behemoth is giving much better benefits to its well-paid, white-collar corporate employees.
The new policy, which takes effect in October, provides up to 18 weeks paid time off for Starbucks white-collar employees who give birth to a baby. That’s three times more leave than a worker behind the counter of a Starbucks store would get if she had a baby (six weeks).
All other corporate employees are given 12 weeks of paid leave after the arrival of a child, including fathers, adoptive and foster parents. Hourly workers? They also get 12 weeks. But it’s completely unpaid.
Celebrated for giving generous benefits to the hourly workers that make up the vast majority of its 180,000 U.S. employees, Starbucks characterized its new policy as “exceptional” in a press release in January.
But some Starbucks workers are now challenging the policy, speaking out against the unfairness of giving one class of workers more time to spend with their children than another, and highlighting a problem that affects Americans across the country.
Last week several Starbucks employees showed up at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Seattle to deliver three petitions, containing over 80,000 signatures from employees and others, demanding equal parental leave benefits for all workers.
“I think my baby is just as important as the babies of the parents in the corporate office,” said Kristin Picciolo, who works part-time at a Starbucks in Medina, Ohio, and traveled to Seattle this week to deliver the petition. “We should have equal benefits and time to spend with them.”
Just four months ago, while she was in labor with her first baby, Picciolo received surprising news that she fell short of Starbucks’ hourly work requirements to qualify for paid maternity leave. (The current policy allows for 6 weeks paid leave at two-thirds pay for those who work 20 hours a week or more.)
Since then, her husband has had to pick up double-shifts at his job as a restaurant server. Picciolo returned to work last month ― sooner than she would’ve liked. “We’re stressed out,” the 22-year-old new mom says of her current situation, laughing out loud when asked about their savings. If her job was upstairs in corporate, she’d still be home with her son, she said.
Few would argue that companies should practice equality when it comes to pay. Employees get different salaries based on rank and other factors. A cashier probably shouldn’t make the same salary as the CEO.
But parental leave is different. And, as Starbucks is finding out, it’s hard to rationalize why some types of workers “deserve” more time with their children than others.
When asked to explain the discrepancy, a Starbucks spokesperson reiterated phrasing from its January press release, saying the expanded benefits for corporate employees were intended to “seek and retain non-store talent.” In other words, the company is competing more fiercely for these workers and needs to do more to attract them.
When Picciolo asked Starbucks president Kevin Johnson if there were any plans to equalize the benefit at the shareholder meeting on Wednesday, he skirted the question, noting that the company also raised hourly pay last year and expanded health benefits. He said that the benefits conversation is ongoing.
Johnson, who will step in as CEO in April, explained that the parental leave policy was simply what Starbucks could offer at this time.
The more generous non-store worker policy actually applies to very few Starbucks employees. Of its 170,000 U.S. workers, all but 8,000 work in its stores, according to company data.
And that handful of workers earns quite a lot more money. While store workers at the company make around $10 an hour; pay at corporate headquarters ― for roles like systems analyst, human resource manager or IT manager ― can run into the six-figures, according to data on Glassdoor.
Paid leave inequality is something that labor groups are starting to pay more attention to, said Brianna Cayo Cotter, chief of staff at Paid Leave U.S.
“The people that most need paid leave benefits are the ones being left out of these policies,” said Cotter. Her nonprofit is working alongside Working Washington, a local labor group, to push Starbucks to further improve its policy.
The catch is that an average low-wage worker is in far greater need of paid time off than her higher-paid counterpart.
Almost half of low-income workers who take unpaid or partially paid leave turn to government benefits to make ends meet, according to a Pew study released Thursday afternoon. An even larger percentage take on debt.
A quarter of all women are back to work less than two weeks after giving birth, which is woefully inadequate for physically recovering from labor.
The United States is one of only a handful of countries that doesn’t offer new mothers paid maternity leave. And it’s the only advanced economy in the worked with zero mandatory sick time.
That means that it falls entirely to the private sector to distribute what is essentially a public benefit. And of course that creates more inequality. The most competitive, highest paying jobs are the ones that offer paid leave.
“This is not about Starbucks, this is about people who have more actually noticing and placing value on the people that have less,” one barista – who is expecting a baby this summer – told reporters. “There is not a difference between [a corporate worker’s] baby and the barista’s baby. The only difference is that she sits upstairs in a building and the barista works down below in an apron. The time for this kind of class discrimination is over.”