Starbucks Is Closing 16 Locations Due to Safety Concerns, Including 2 Unionized Stores

Starbucks logo outside a location
Starbucks logo outside a location

Starbucks is often referred to by itself and others as "third space" — recognizing its thousands of coffee shops as additional community hubs beyond home and work where people can hang out. But this week, the chain has admitted that simply being a third space isn't enough; in multiple open messages to employees posted on Monday, Starbucks emphasized that an effective third space also has to be "safe, welcoming, and kind."

Apparently, some locations aren't hitting those targets: This week, Starbucks also announced plans to close 16 stores over safety concerns. According to the Wall Street Journal, by the end of the month, the chain will permanently close six stores in Seattle; six more in the Los Angeles area; two in Portland, Oregon; and one each in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., primarily over complaints tied to drug use and other reported incidents.

The store closures follow an interesting series of events over the past several years. Back in 2018, CEO Howard Schultz — who has since retired and then been reinstated as interim CEO — attempted to make Starbucks more inclusive by instituting an open bathroom policy. But as Nation's Restaurant News points out, in 2019, the chain opted to place needle disposal boxes in a small number of stores after employee allegations that they'd been jabbed while cleaning. Since the pandemic, shifts in behavior have apparently gotten to the point where, last month, Schultz suggested it might be time to reverse the open bathroom policy; and then, on Monday, the interim CEO announced that the company would engage in a new era of "significant reinvention," including a renewed commitment to store safety across the county. (In a statement to Nation's Restaurant News, a Starbucks spokesperson said that the open bathroom policy specifically has not yet been changed.)

However, at a time when Starbucks has faced allegations of shuttering stores in their battle against unionization, unionized workers have raised questions over the selection of stores to be closed. Less than two percent of Starbucks stores nationwide are currently unionized, and yet, two of the 16 stores slated to be closed, both in Seattle, have unions, while one of the two stores in Portland has petitioned to unionize as well.

"Every decision Starbucks makes must be viewed through the lens of the company's unprecedented, and virulent union-busting campaign," Starbucks Workers United, the chain's national union organization, stated via email. "Starbucks claims that they are closing the stores because they are 'unsafe,' yet, the closing of the popular college town store in Ithaca, NY, followed a strike over unsafe conditions. Starbucks' response was not to fix the problem but to punish the workers who had recently unionized."

Permanently closing stores due to safety concerns on the same day of making a commitment to improve safety company-wide may sound counterintuitive. And reached for comment, a Starbucks spokesperson told me that the company has been actively trying to fix these 16 stores, including the unionized ones, for as long as the past year.

However, accusations on Twitter suggest otherwise. One post — retweeted by the local SB Workers United Seattle Twitter account — purports to show a sign taped to the door at the closing 505 Union Station location in Seattle where employees are pleading their case. "It is not fair that we were not allowed to bargain over our working conditions as Starbucks is federally required to do," the sign reads. "It is disingenuous for Starbucks to claim they could not provide a safe experience for our workplace when we were routinely denied support offered to other stores with similar concerns… This is not good faith bargaining, this is union busting."

"After being charged by the federal National Labor Relations Board with hundreds of law violations including firings, threats, and store closings, the Company's leaders — Howard Schultz and Mellody Hobson — apparently believe they are above the law," Starbucks Workers United continued in their statement to us. "They will stop at nothing to bust the union. This is a clear way to punish those workers who voted 'yes' to unionize and intimidate workers from organizing."

For its part, a Starbucks spokesperson told me that complaints of unsafe conditions at the 505 Union Station location came from store employees, implying that the decision was driven by the workers themselves. And in their emailed statement, the spokesperson added, "Claims of union busting are false. We regularly open and close stores as a standard part of our business operations. We apply the same focus on safety at unionized and non-union stores and are closing non-union stores where we are similarly challenged in providing a safe environment for our customer and partner experience."

Overall, this week's announcements show that Starbucks is committed to moving ahead with a new plan for the brand. How union members will be welcomed along for the ride remains to be addressed.

Update July 15, 2022: According to Nation's Restaurant News, in leaked video footage of a recent internal meeting (and verified as authentic by Starbucks), interim CEO Howard Schultz stated that, with regard to the store closures, "this is just the beginning" and that more stores, including profitable locations, would be expected to close due to what Schultz cited as local government's to deal with issues of crime, homelessness, and metal illness. "We're facing things the stores were not built for," Schultz said.