September 2, 2022 By Michael Dorgan
The city has filed a lawsuit against Starbucks alleging the coffee chain unlawfully fired a worker in retaliation for helping to unionize a store in Astoria.
The lawsuit, filed by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), claims Starbucks unlawfully fired barista Austin Locke days after the 22-28 31st St. store where he worked voted to unionize — the second store in Queens to do so.
The coffee giant claimed to have fired Locke, 28, for failing to complete a COVID-19 questionnaire after returning to work after being ill, according to the complaint. Starbucks also claimed Locke, who had been at the store since October 2016, falsely accused a supervisor of making physical contact with him.
However, Locke said he was actually fired by the company on July 5 in retaliation for leading the store’s successful vote to unionize days earlier.
Locke says he and other pro-union Starbucks workers across the country are being targeted by the company for their organizing efforts. About 200 sites across the country have voted to unionize since December.
The DCWP investigated Locke’s firing and determined that Starbucks violated the city’s fair work week law, known as the “just cause” labor law, by ousting him. By law, fast food workers can only be fired for legitimate economic reasons or for just cause such as misconduct or incompetence.
The DCWP lawsuit, filed with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), is the first time the city has pursued such a case under the law since it took effect in July 2021.
The department, according to the lawsuit, is demanding that Starbucks return Locke’s work and provide him with back pay for lost work. The DCWP also wants Starbucks to pay indefinite civil penalties.
Starbucks meanwhile intends to defend itself against alleged breaches of the “just cause” law, a company spokesperson told The Queens Post. The spokesperson said Locke did not follow the company’s COVID-19 guidelines, which could put others at the store at risk.
Locke, according to the city’s complaint, returned to work on June 8 after being sick for two days. He said he followed Starbucks protocol by taking his temperature and signing a logbook saying he had no symptoms of the virus.
He said he planned to fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire on a Starbucks electronic tablet but couldn’t find a working device. He then started his shift without finishing it, the filing says.
Shortly after his June 8 shift, Locke said he attempted to go to a back room to retrieve some cleaning solution, but was stopped by a supervisor who, according to Locke, placed his hand on his chest inappropriately. Locke later filed a complaint of unwanted physical contact with a Starbucks district manager.
On July 5, just days after the store voted to unionize, Locke was fired by the company.
Starbucks cited Locke’s failure to complete the questionnaire on June 8 and video footage allegedly refuting his complaint of unwanted physical contact. It is unclear if Locke worked at the store in the weeks that followed.
Locke said he asked to see the footage, but Starbucks refused to show him the video, according to the complaint.
The DCWP said it obtained the footage as part of its investigation – but it did not confirm Starbucks’ claim since the incident was out of sight, according to the lawsuit.
Locke maintains that he is part of a larger cohort of workers that Starbucks is supporting in their organizing efforts. More than 85 workers across the United States who were involved in organizing the coffee chain have been fired in recent months, according to labor group Starbucks Workers United (SWU).
Locke called for an end to the alleged practice in a statement Friday.
“Starbucks continues to wrongfully fire pro-union workers across the country in retaliation for union organizing,” Locke said. “Starbucks Workers United demands that Starbucks rehire all illegally terminated workers and end its illegal union busting campaign.”
He also called on the company to negotiate with store workers for better terms. They previously said they were unionizing to fight for a $25 hourly rate, free and comprehensive health care coverage regardless of hours worked, more paid vacation and sick time, and furloughs. expanded childcare and maternity.
Adrienne Adams, Queens council member and council chair, praised the DCWP for taking on the case.
“Protecting the rights of workers to organize and unionize is essential, and employers who attempt to undermine and violate these rights must be held accountable,” Adams said.
“Starbucks’ actions were not only wrong, but illegal…As a city, we must continue to protect the rights of workers to ensure they receive the respect, dignity and conditions they deserve. .”