Starbucks threatens to ditch trans healthcare benefits amid union row, staff say

People in a crowd hold up various orange signs with white writing in support of Starbucks unionising with a white Starbucks logo from a store is seen in the background

Starbucks is allegedly threatening to take away trans healthcare coverage for staff as part of the company’s ongoing row with its burgeoning union. 

A complaint against the company with the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), first reported by Bloomberg, accused the chain of “threatening employees with loss of benefits” including gender-affirming healthcare for trans staff if they unionise. 

The complaint comes after more than 150 of the coffee chain’s 9,000 stores across the US have voted to join its burgeoning union, Starbucks Workers United, in recent months. 

Neha Cremin, a worker at a Starbucks store in Oklahoma, told Bloomberg that her manager said in a one-on-one meeting that she wasn’t anti-union. But Cremin said her manager wanted her to know that “if you unionise, when you are negotiating your benefits, you could gain, you could lose or you could stay the same”. 

Cremin said her manager specifically mentioned how the worker has “used the trans healthcare benefits”, and Cremin said the chilling message struck her as a “veiled threat”. 

“I think the company realises that we as trans partners feel particularly vulnerable at this time,” Cremin said. “I think that in some cases they are willing to take advantage of that.”

However, Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told Bloomberg the business is “not threatening our partners with the loss of benefits if they join a union”. Borges added Starbucks takes a “great deal of pride in offering industry-leading benefits and have done so for more than 50 years”.

Several people gather in a crowd to protest against Starbucks and support staff who want to unionise

A complaint against Starbucks says the coffee giant is “threatening employees with the loss of benefits” including trans healthcare if staff unionise. (Jason/AFP via Getty)

The NLRB has received more than 200 complaints about Starbucks in the past year, according to VICE. But the alleged threats to take away gender-affirming healthcare coverage for trans staff that unionise would represent a steep deterioration for a company that proudly touts its progressive company values. 

Starbucks’ health insurance has covered gender-affirming surgery since 2012 and a wider affray of affirming procedures since 2018. In May, the chain announced it would cover travel costs for staff seeking abortions and gender-affirming care amid legislative attacks against healthcare in the US. 

Staff at the Oklahoma store told Bloomberg they raised concerns if trans baristas would have enough scheduled hours to be able to access Starbucks’ trans healthcare benefits. The works also brought up the alleged threats to those benefits during a meeting last month hosted by their district manager. 

They said the manager told them that “no one is saying that anyone’s going to take them away” but said “trans partners’ benefits are up for negotiation” if workers were unionised. 

One employee said it seemed like “scare tactics” and “fearmongering”. 

Cremin told VICE News that many of her coworkers are queer and many “rely on the transgender healthcare benefits”. 

“We are uniquely vulnerable when Starbucks makes veiled threats that gender-affirming healthcare could be taken away,” Cremin said. “We deserve access to healthcare. We deserve to be paid enough not just to survive but also to transition, to love, to thrive.”

The alleged threats to trans healthcare benefits are not unique to the Oklahoma Starbucks. 

An anonymous Starbucks employee in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania told Bloomberg that a pair of managers mentioned in a meeting her plans to get gender-affirming surgery. She said the managers suggested the benefit might disappear if she were to unionise. 

The staffer said managers also asked her what would happen if her colleagues didn’t care about trans healthcare benefits and negotiated a new benefits package without such coverage.