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Starbucks in Sun Valley takes first steps to unionize

“It’s like a toxic relationship — they love bomb us.” Over 60 percent of employees at the store signed a petition to unionize with United Workers, forcing a vote tentatively scheduled for late May.

By Isaac Dektor, Managing Editor

(L-R) Nohe Torres, Emma Chambers and Noey Bravo stand out front of their Starbucks location on 8274 Sunland Blvd in Sun Valley, California. The three are leading the rest of their staff in hopes of successfully unionizing as many other Starbucks locations across the country do the same. (Griffin O'Rourke | The Valley Star)

Overdoses, attempted robbery and harassment were not part of the Starbucks job description. That is what led three 22-year-old employees at a Sun Valley location to successfully lead a petition with United Workers for a unionization vote.

When Emma Chambers first saw unions spread across Starbucks locations like wildfire late last year, she did not think much about it. So far, Over 100 stores have petitioned to unionize following the success of a location in Buffalo, New York. After the psychology major received a promotion and transferred to the Sun Valley location, she decided to start a petition.

“I’m a shift lead at the store and as a 22-year-old woman dealing with full grown men overdosing in the store, with no proper training or help with that situation, I’m told to just go back to work,” said Chambers.

Chambers is referring to an incident last December in which she and another employee performed CPR on a man who overdosed in the drive thru line. According to three workers of the same location — Chambers, Noey Bravo and Nohe Torres, drug use in the store is more of a rule than an exception. Chambers plans to carry Narcan, a life saving medicine that can block opioid overdoses. According to all three workers, employees were requesting to transfer out of the Sun Valley location due to excessive ‘third place issues,’ but were routinely denied by a former manager.

A third place, such as Starbucks, is meant to provide relaxation or recreation to people between their home and work. ‘Third place issues’ include drug use, unruly customers and other disruptive or dangerous behavior. Being sandwiched between the I-5 freeway and Sun Valley park makes this particular Starbucks a cesspool for such issues.

Bravo, a 22-year-old who has been at Starbucks for over three years, was working at the Sun Valley location on the night of Sept. 6, 2021 when a gunman threatened a customer in the drive thru line.

“It was one of the scariest nights of my entire life,” said Bravo. “Having to send that text to your parents and to everybody you love — nobody wants to be on either side of that text.”

According to Bravo, the police and former manager showed up 90 minutes after the incident. Instead of being offered time off, Bravo was asked to go in earlier to her shift the next day.

Starbucks provides ‘partners,’ the name given to its employees, with access to Lyra Health, a third party app that offers therapy sessions to workforces. Chambers took advantage of the amenity, partly due to her experiences while working at Starbucks. But after 20 free sessions, Chambers had to choose between paying hundreds of dollars and postponing further therapy for a year.

Chambers, Bravo and Torres all recount numerous traumatic experiences during their time with the company. They report minimal support from managers and have noticed a high turnover rate as a result.

“I’ve seen people who are training and the second they are no longer in that training process they quit,” said Torres. “Obviously that shows that something is happening at this location. They’re quick to realize that this job is more than just making drinks.”

Starbucks also offers its employees tuition for an online four-year program at Arizona State University. However, the company does not warn its ‘partners’ about potential financial consequences of failing a course.

“I took one course because I wanted to get started with ASU and I just didn’t pass it,” said Bravo. “School has never been my forte — but I really wanted to get back into school, especially with taking advantage of ASU at Starbucks. It put me further back and I owe $2,200 for taking one class.”

Bravo enrolled in a course in Spring of 2020, just before the beginning of the pandemic when employees were asked to take on more overtime. After her workload increased, Bravo reached out to her professor and Starbucks academic advisor to ask for support, but never received a response.

After getting over 60 percent of the store to sign the petition, the shift lead and two baristas are looking ahead to the vote, which is not yet scheduled but will likely take place in late May. If the unionization effort is successful, they hope to bargain for safer working conditions and higher wages.

“I truly have always loved working at Starbucks,'' said Chambers. “I love the idea of what they're trying to create. But I feel pushed aside, I feel mistreated. I want to feel comfortable coming to work every day — I want to feel like I genuinely have a place where I'm heard.”


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