Starbucks Holds Life-Saving Benefits Over Trans Workers' Heads

Managers are wielding a new weapon against unions: gender-affirming healthcare

Zane McNeill

Maddie Doran (far left) and fellow Starbucks employees meet outside the Overland Park store to to have their union ballots counted. PHOTO BY JACOB MARTIN

OVERLAND PARK, KAN. — Maddie Doran worked at the Starbucks on 75th Street and Interstate 35 for 10 months, not only to pay the bills,” she says, but because the company’s health insurance covers gender-affirming surgery. Many health plans exclude gender-affirming care, despite the fact that the medically necessary procedures can be lifesaving — Harvard research shows gender-affirming care can significantly reduce suicidal ideation, for example. 

And without Starbucks’ health plan, Doran’s facial feminization surgery would cost her $42,000.

But after Doran joined a union campaign at the store this winter, the benefit was waved over my head” as an anti-union scare tactic, she says, with one store manager privately telling her, You’re here for the gender-affirming surgeries and I’m worried about you [losing that benefit and] becoming the minority [in contract negotiations], because ultimately the union decides.”

An emailed statement from Starbucks to In These Times said that the company would bargain in good faith” but could make no guarantees about any benefits,” asserting that even if we were to offer a certain benefit at the bargaining table, a union could decide to exchange it for something else.” 

Losing a benefit because of your union is extremely unlikely. As Katie Barrows, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, explains: Employees form unions to improve their workplaces. Additionally, when employees organize, they are the union, which means they negotiate and vote to approve their union contract — union members are not going to vote for a contract that leaves them worse off. … I’ve only seen union contracts drastically improve workers’ pay, benefits and working conditions.” 

Before Doran could get the surgery, however, she lost the health coverage anyway. She and two other outspoken union supporters, Michael Vestigo and Alydia Claypool, were fired in the same week. The store accused Doran of stealing money; she denies the charge and believes the three were targeted as retaliation.

As a union organizing wave has pulled in more than 300 Starbucks stores so far, workers have alleged egregious union-busting tactics by the company, including intimidation, retaliatory firings and scheduling reductions. Interim CEO Howard Schultz announced in April that a new benefits expansion will exclude union stores.

In at least one other store, as reported in Bloomberg and Them, managers specifically threatened that unionizing could jeopardize health benefits for trans employees. These alleged threats prompted Workers United to file unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), on behalf of employees at Doran’s store and an Oklahoma City location.

Doran says her firing represents how gender-affirming healthcare can be used as a cudgel against unionization efforts. Retaliatory store closures or firings can especially hurt trans employees who rely on hard-to-find benefits. 

Doran and her coworkers publicly announced their union campaign in January and held a walk out and strike in March to protest unfair working conditions. At one point, Doran says, managers tried to throw employees off the grounds of a local hotel where they’d been called for a mandatory anti-union meeting. When a group of workers gathered outside after the meeting, Doran says, a Starbucks manager told them, You all need to go,” and then complained to the hotel front desk, who said the police had been called.

Doran, Vestigo and Claypool all made pro-union statements in the media, and all were terminated in April. The NLRB filed a complaint against Starbucks in May, alleging the firings were retaliatory, and Claypool has since been reinstated. 

The union ballots came back a week after the three were fired. The vote was 6-1 in favor of a union, adding Overland Park to the more than 200 Starbucks locations that have unionized so far this year.

Transgender people are unemployed at a rate three times higher than the national average, according to a 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality study, and face a greater risk of underemployment and poverty than other workers. They are subject to higher rates of hiring bias, on-the job discrimination and firings, greater wage inequity and unequal access to healthcare.

While Starbucks’ 2018 rollout of transgender health benefits was celebrated by LGBTQ advocates and media platforms, some workers at individual stores have reported trans-discriminatory practices. In 2018, Maddie Wade, a transgender employee, sued Starbucks for discrimination, alleging her manager repeatedly misgendered her. In a 2020 survey by hospitality union Unite Here of workers at airport Starbucks stores, which are run by a subcontractor, at least four employees reported discrimination such as offensive and transphobic comments from managers.” A 2020 BuzzFeed story details three workers at different Starbucks stores being outed, hitting snags accessing gender-affirming benefits and being deadnamed. 

Starbucks will posture that they care about queer people,” says Doran, and they will posture that they care about any minority group, but the second you try to have a democratic workplace or speak up for yourself or don’t let them bully you — suddenly you’re public enemy number one, and they completely shut you out.” 

A friend of Doran’s created a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $42,000 for the surgery. As of yet, she had raised $2,200.

Zane McNeill is the founder of Roots DEI Consulting and Policy and is comanager of the labor rights group Rights for Animal Rights Advocates.

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