For Niko Walker, working at Starbucks is a “dream job.”
“I’ve been so supported here,” said Walker, who began transitioning from female to male in 2010, shortly before he started a job as a Starbucks barista. “I spoke with my manager, discussed my transition and my request to be called Niko instead. It wasn’t a problem.” And Walker’s health care from Starbucks paid for his hormones, doctor appointments, hysterectomy and reconstructive surgeries.
But Starbucks’ inclusion of the LGBTQ community has stalled in recent months, as evidenced by a PL+US report showing the organization’s disproportionate paid family leave offerings. Corporate employees are given 12 to 16 weeks of paid family leave, in contrast to 0 to 6 weeks given to retail employees. The policy particularly disadvantages the fathers and adoptive parents who work in retail stores, who receive zero weeks of paid leave (mothers who give birth and work in Starbucks’ retail stores receive six weeks of paid leave).
Walker has since been promoted from barista and now works as a shift supervisor at a busy Starbucks near Los Angeles International Airport. This August marks his seventh year with the company. When he learned of Starbucks’ unequal paid leave policies, he started an online petition requesting equal paid family leave for LGBTQ families. The petition went viral on social media. Within a few days, he had collected more than 20,000 signatures.
“As a company that advocates strongly for the LGBT community, Starbucks needs to set the example and show their support and interest in us growing as people,” Walker said.
LGBTQ families face particular challenges when it comes to paid family leave, as they are four times more likely to parent an adopted child and six times more likely to be raising foster children. Paid family leave benefits that focus exclusively on birth mothers can inadvertently leave out adoptive families. Studies by the Donaldson Adoption Institute show that lesbians and gay men are more likely than heterosexual adults to adopt older children with special needs. According to an advanced look at a forthcoming report by PL+US that focuses on LGBTQ concerns, policies that offer less paid parental leave to dads and adoptive parents leave these families with less than adequate time to settle into a new life.
A spokesman for Starbucks declined to comment further, directing questions about the paid leave policy to a company statement.
Starbucks’ paid leave policy is still considered generous by retail industry standards. Few companies provide equal paid family leave to all new parents; Target, Verizon Communications, Nordstrom, Hilton and Ikea are among those that do. And Starbucks has a long history of inclusion within the LGBTQ community, including being listed as one of the Human Rights Campaign’s Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality. What is different about Starbucks, notes Brianna Cayo Cotter, chief of staff at PL+US, is the willingness of employees to speak up and ask for change.
“People expect Starbucks to act better than other companies. When they rolled out this policy that was really uneven, it felt really off to a lot of employees,” said Cotter. She estimates that only 3 percent of the Starbucks workforce can take advantage of the corporate leave policies.
Cotter also cites Starbucks’ reputation for being responsive to employee concerns. PL+US “also supports employees at Walmart, but they can face severe retaliation for speaking out,” she said. “Starbucks employees feel safer speaking out without retaliation.”
Walker, too, cited his faith in Starbucks’ progressive policies, including a commitment to hiring veterans and refugees, as motivation. “Honestly, for me, this is one of the first times I’ve felt this was something that was overlooked.”
In addition to the health benefits Walker described, he intends to enroll in the Pathways to Admission education program, offered free by Starbucks, and currently participates in the company’s 401(k) account, with a 5 percent employer match. Each year with the company, he accumulates stock. But the best part for him is the supportive community.
“Starbucks is part of the person I’ve become,” he says. “The team feel, the awesome connection you make with the regulars and the guests, it made me so happy to be there at work.”
Walker and PL+US have a goal of collecting 35,000 signatures on the petition and scheduling a meeting this summer with Starbucks’ vice president of global benefits, Ron Crawford, inviting other LGBTQ Starbucks employees in the Seattle area to attend.
“We’re working really hard in these stores. People expect the legendary service,” Walker said. “It’s nice to have 401(k) and school support. But some people are trying to have families, and they can’t leave work because they don’t have benefits.”
Rebecca Gale is a journalist and writer in Bethesda, Md. Follow her @beckgale.
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