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Employees at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in the Meatpacking District returned to work Dec. 12 following a 46-day strike that spawned when workers found mold in an ice machine and bedbugs in their break room.
Three days later, inspectors from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets also returned to the store and found no posted notice of the roastery’s failed November inspection, when it received a “B” grade, a moth flying around the coffee storage area, and several other “general deficiencies.”
The report, compiled by the three inspectors following their Dec. 15 visit, also noted that the roastery “sells potentially hazardous foods for retail sale and wholesale distribution daily.” They did not detail what those were.
Their report makes no note of “mold like residues” that inspectors found in the roastery’s ice machines during an initial inspection Nov. 9. On that day, inspectors ordered the ice in two machines to be discarded and told management to sanitize the machines, according to the news site The City.
“We're pleased that a re-inspection of our New York Roastery conducted by the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets on Dec. 15, 2022, demonstrated no critical deficiencies and that our food safety program is working — resulting in an A-rating indicative of the safety, quality and care that defines the Starbucks experience,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement.
Workers, however, insist mold in the ice machine continued to be a problem when they returned from the strike. On the day of their December visit, the inspectors were shown the mold workers found in ice cubes meant for customers’ drinks, including craft cocktails served at the flagship location. The employees shared several photos with The Chief, taken the day of the second inspection, that appear to show moldy ice.
Roastery workers were confused as to why no mention of moldy ice cubes made it into the report. “I don’t know why the report would say anything against what you can see with your own eyes,” said Joel Foote, a barista at the store who is also on the union's bargaining committee.
Foote said that, in general, the roastery is much cleaner now than it was before workers walked out, a development he credits to the demands that workers won in the strike. Management also got a new ice machine, Foote says, part of the reason that issues with mold haven’t been as egregious as they were last month.
As part of the striking workers’ agreement for returning to the store, Starbucks agreed to a weekly cleaning of the store’s ice machines, frequent pest inspections and new health and safety trainings for workers and managers. Workers also formed a health and safety committee under New York’s HERO Act, 2021 legislation that mandates workplace health and safety protections.
“The workers agreed to return to work knowing that not all the issues have been fully resolved,” a spokesperson for the Starbucks Workers United of New York and New Jersey told The Chief. “They formed a health and safety committee to monitor the and bring issues to management's attention”
The HERO act allows employees to establish joint employer-employee committees to discuss workplace safety issues but, according to Foote, Starbucks management has yet to take any role in the committee. Workers also had their first negotiating session with Starbucks lawyers a day after returning to work. That session was short lived, according to Foote, since the lawyers walked out soon after introductions were completed because they objected that a national representative from Starbucks Workers United joined the meeting via Zoom.
Workers first voted to unionize the roastery in April, and the two sides have yet to agree to any future bargaining dates.
Workers also said that on the day of their return, Starbucks management held two separate meetings with their employees, the first just with workers who returned from strike, and the second with all of the store’s employees. Laura Garza, a store barista who joined the earlier strike, said the sessions amounted to “captive audience meetings” where management, along with some employees who didn’t join the strike, aired grievances about the striking workers.
The first meeting, with just the employees who had gone out on strike, was led by a new manager who told workers that Starbucks intended to double the number of employees in the store.
At the second meeting, recordings of which were shared with The Chief, tensions were clearly high. One exasperated employee named Jake asked why managers hadn’t initially taken workers’ concerns about mold in the ice machine seriously. A manager responded by asking Jake if he was “new to New York City,” and then went on to explain that the water entering the ice machine is “really dirty.” The ice machine, the manager said, runs water “through a filtration system to make it as clean and consumable as possible.”
Garza took this to mean that management was blaming the quality of New York City’s water, which locals hold in high esteem, for the mold found in the ice machine. The meetings contributed to what Garza said is an atmosphere ripe with animosity. “Striking partners don’t feel comfortable in the store,” she said. “It's still a tense atmosphere and management is doing nothing to work with us in any way.”
Foote and another employee said they haven't seen or heard of mold in the store’s ice since Dec. 15 and he insisted that all he wants is a store that is safe and clean for workers and customers alike.
“We're not trying to catch Starbucks,” Foote said. “We just want everything to be up to code.”
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