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Howard Schultz’s #MeToo Problem at Starbucks

Starbucks employees have faced rampant sexual harassment for years. Why hasn't Howard Schultz faced scrutiny for it?

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaking at an event at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia.

Billionaire former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — who finds the term “billionaire” to be a micro-aggression of sorts (he prefers “person of means”) — has been getting a lot of attention since he announced he’s thinking about running for president. CNN even gave him an hour of airtime for his own Town Hall. All this despite the fact that he is the least popular of any possible candidate thus far. Americans may love foamy milk lightly flavored with bad afternoon coffee, but this apparently does not translate into affection for rich centrist men.

Bernie Sanders, by contrast, is a strong contender in the Democratic primary, with a good chance of beating Trump. His media coverage, however, has lately been dominated by relentless attention to a small number of allegations of sex discrimination and sexual harassment within his campaign organization. (Sanders may be one of the few men in politics who has never been charged with any personal sexual misconduct, and given the scrutiny and liberal hatred he has already faced, probably never will be.)

These charges have been repeatedly discussed by the New York Times, Fox News, USA Today, Time and pretty much every major media outlet. Such problems, unfortunately commonplace in political campaigns, including that of Hillary Clinton in 2016, are consistently reported as potentially career-ending disasters for Bernie Sanders.

So much concern about women workers! In this context and climate, then, you’d think we’d be hearing a lot about rape and sexual harassment at Howard Schultz’s company, Starbucks.

But it turns out that if you’re a declared enemy of the “billionaire class,” the mainstream media will make every effort to investigate any #MeToo-related issues in your organization, framing them as serious blemishes on your fitness for higher office. If you’re a billionaire? Not at all.

Starbucks has been sued many times by employees alleging sexual harassment and violence. It’s important to keep in mind that lawsuits always represent only a small part of any company’s problem with discrimination and harassment; while some women might make false claims, far more are going to respond to real mistreatment by keeping quiet, not coming forward at all.

Here are just a few examples of lawsuits brought by women who helped make Schultz a man of means.

In 2010, a teenage barista in Orange County sued Starbucks claiming that her supervisor had demanded sex with her when she was sixteen years old, demands that led to a sexual relationship. The story was reported by ABC’s 20/20. In 2013, a shift supervisor sued the company saying that she was fired for complaining when male baristas pinned her against the wall, grinding against her. She also said they joked about a “rape room” in the store’s basement.

In 2014, a young woman working her first job, in a Starbucks in Manhattan’s Union Square, sued the company claiming that her supervisor made her call him “daddy,” repeatedly propositioned her, and eventually assaulted her. She said she told the store manager all this and he did nothing.

The same year, another young Starbucks barista, this one working in Midtown Manhattan, also sued the company, claiming that her co-workers had repeatedly propositioned her and fondled her without her permission. She was fired after she complained.

A year later, a barista in Illinois also sued the company, claiming that when she complained after a year of lurid and disgusting harassment by a co-worker, her work hours were cut dramatically, so that she lost her health insurance. After that, she was fired.

Newsweek reported several such stories about Starbucks in 2016, indicating that there were many more: “The list, sadly, goes on.”

In addition to harassment by management and co-workers, Starbucks seems to tolerate it when it’s perpetrated by by customers. In 2017, a barista in Santa Monica, California, sued the company after she was fired, also for complaining, in this case about being harassed and stalked by a customer. The following year, sixteen Starbucks baristas shared with Cosmopolitan their stories of sexual harassment from customers.

Widespread sexual harassment at a company, sex discrimination lawyers have told me, is almost always a sign of structural gender inequality and a backward company culture. Indeed, last summer, a transgender woman in Fresno sued Starbucks for discrimination and harassment, saying that after she revealed that she was going through a gender transition, her hours were cut and her supervisor harassed her ceaselessly with his religious opposition to trans people.

Where women are disrespected enough to face such insults, they are, most likely, also facing discrimination in wages and promotions. The case that became Betty Dukes vs. Walmart Stores, the largest civil rights class action suit in history, began when lawyers representing women who had been sexually harassed at Walmart suspected that with so much harassment there was an even larger problem, and thought to demand data on wages and promotions. That data showed that women were paid unequally and promoted less easily than men, at every level of the company’s operations.

Starbucks isn’t unique. Most low-wage employers have serious sexual harassment problems. Women in retail jobs face sexist disrespect from customers and managers, and their low status leaves them vulnerable to everything from annoying, pesky bullshit to horrifying violence. A lack of union representation means that managers have more power over workers than they should, and workers have no recourse when facing any kind of injustice. Low pay, and, in the United States, the difficulty of getting health care, as well as a poor social safety net, make it hard for women workers living paycheck to paycheck to leave such situations.

While Starbucks is hardly unique among low-wage retailers, Schultz is personally responsible for this widespread problem in his business, as it could easily be addressed by robust anti-harassment policies, including but not limited to union recognition, higher wages and strong in-store enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws.

If media elites were serious about improving the lot of working women as opposed to merely weaponizing #MeToo against political candidates they find distasteful, harassment at Starbucks would quickly become a disqualifying issue for this particular person of means.