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On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
On Nov. 2, 2021, Claire*, an 18-year-old barista who worked at a Starbucks in a shopping center in Ashland, Virginia, contacted her store manager to tell her that her shift supervisor had sexually assaulted her the day before at his house.
Claire also contacted the Henrico County Police Department to report the assault. Court records show that the state of Virginia charged the worker who assaulted her with “object sexual penetration by force.”
In the following days, Claire said she saw the man who assaulted her working at Starbucks. She started skipping work to cope with feelings of anxiety and depression. “I couldn’t take a shower alone,” Claire told Motherboard about the days following her assault. “I had to have people on the phone with me.” Starbucks denies that the man who assaulted her worked at the store in the two weeks after she reported the assault.
Motherboard granted Claire pseudonymity to protect her privacy, and has also decided not to publish the name of the Starbucks employee who assaulted her in order to protect Claire’s identity. The man who assaulted her eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual battery, and Motherboard has confirmed the details reported in this article with Claire, court records, Claire’s co-workers at Starbucks, and co-workers of the man who assaulted Claire.
On November 11, just nine days after she reported her assault, Starbucks fired Claire for irregular attendance. The man who assaulted Claire, meanwhile, stayed with the company even after he was arrested. The terms of his bail show he was not allowed to return to Claire’s place of work; after this, he was transferred to Willow Lawn, a Starbucks location in Richmond, Virginia. He remained there as a shift supervisor for nearly five months, and kept his job even after pleading guilty to assaulting Claire. On April 14, Starbucks finally terminated the worker who assaulted Claire, five weeks after his guilty plea and after the court ordered that he register as a sex offender with Virginia state police. Starbucks confirmed the timeline of Claire’s employment and that of the worker who assaulted her, and confirmed that it transferred him to a new store after Claire reported the assault.
Workers at the Willow Lawn store say the man who assaulted Claire also harassed them. They say management was more interested in distributing anti-union propaganda and protecting the man who assaulted Claire than keeping them safe. Thirteen workers there sent a letter to Starbucks corporate on April 22 demanding an “official explanation, as well as an acknowledgement of wrongdoing from members of corporate whose job it is to maintain our safety.”
“While management never told us of these criminal sexual assault charges, the partners in our store felt increasingly uncomfortable working with him on the floor. He made repeated sexual comments and jokes to partners, while frequently reminding partners of his authority over others,” they wrote in the letter, obtained by Motherboard. “Across the country, partners associated with union organization are being wrongfully terminated without prior written notice for minor infractions such dress code offenses and ‘safety violations,’ but an individual who had been arrested and indicted for felony sexual assault was allowed to remain employed for four months before termination. Clearly Starbucks is more interested in national union busting than protecting its partners from sexual assault.”
Neither the man who assaulted Claire nor his attorney responded to requests for comment.
Starbucks told Motherboard that leading up to her termination, Claire missed seven shifts, and arrived late to work 15 times between August and the end of October. Claire said that she had missed work during those months because she had trouble getting a ride from her legal guardians whom she lived with at the time.
“I feel very frustrated that I lost my job at Starbucks because of this,” Claire said. “Before this, I was taken away from my mom, and I was in treatment for two and ahalf years to get better and to get my mental state back. This stuff has fucked that all up.”
“My store manager and district manager both knew of my struggles, that I was having a hard time at home,” she added.
The revelation that Starbucks knowingly employed a supervisor who was accused of and then later pleaded guilty to assaulting his subordinate, and allowed him to continue working at another store for months without informing staff, comes during an unprecedented wave of union campaigns at Starbucks stores across the country. Starbucks baristas at the Willow Lawn location in Richmond say these facts speak to the company’s priorities and raise questions about the extent to which the company has knowingly allowed other abusers to continue working for the company.
“When I found out, I was sick to my stomach.”
The nationwide campaign to unionize Starbucks is led by young workers, many in their early twenties who, in addition to fighting for better benefits and wages, want a say in how their working conditions are determined. More than 50 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize since December, and nearly 250 Starbucks locations nationwide have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board. Last month, workers at five Starbucks stores in the Richmond area, including Willow Lawn, won their union elections.
In its comment to Motherboard, Starbucks did not express remorse for the sexual violence experienced by the barista. Instead the company highlighted her patchy attendance record and noted that the incident did not occur in their store. It also defended its decision to keep the worker who assaulted her employed.
“Prior to raising the incident to leaders, [the survivor] was on a Final Written Warning for demonstrating a pattern of irregular attendance since she has been rehired on 7/22/21,” Reggie Borges, a spokesperson for Starbucks, told Motherboard.
“When violations come to our attention, we initiate a thorough and consistent investigation that ensures every partner is treated fairly, and we take appropriate action including separation when we confirm unacceptable behavior,” Borges stated. “We have terminated this partner (employee) though our investigation continues to determine if other steps should have been taken by leadership to ensure accountability.”
Starbucks told Motherboard that after the state began criminal proceedings, it was unable to continue its own investigation. But there was no reason that Starbucks couldn’t have left the worker on leave, according to Rosemarie Cipparulo, a labor and employment law expert at Rutgers University. Cipparulo told Motherboard that it’s unusual that Starbucks didn’t suspend the worker immediately after they learned about the sexual assault accusations, or terminate him when he pleaded guilty to assault.
According to Starbucks, the company became aware that Claire had notified law enforcement on November 5, and her assaulter had COVID from November 2 through November 13. Upon clearing his COVID isolation, Starbucks suspended the worker for two weeks to conduct an investigation before allowing him to transfer to a new store in early December. The company noted as part of its reasoning to keep the man who assaulted Claire working in its stores, he “had declar[ed] his innocence.”
“From a moral perspective, Starbucks should have kept this guy away,” said Cipparulo. “From a legal perspective, Starbucks didn’t do anything wrong, but frankly they could be liable if they knew he had this charge and them put him to work somewhere else were he raped or harassed other women.”
Cipparulo added that is typical for employers to suspend employees who are accused of sexual harassment or assault with or without pay until the end of a criminal investigation. In other cases, an employer will move the accused to another worksite, as Starbucks did, which is perfectly legal, but puts other workers at risk.
Cipparulo also added that harassers and rapists often remain in their jobs while survivors leave or are forced out of a company. “It’s not uncommon that a victim who is a subordinate will leave a job, while the rapist or harasser who is in the position of power maintains his or her employment,” she said. “They are seen as more important to the company.”
Workers at the Willow Lawn Starbucks location are furious that the worker who assaulted Claire was transferred to their location between December 2021 and April 2022. They told Motherboard he had a key to the store, and sometimes individual women opened alone with him at 5 AM when it was still dark outside and no one else was around.
Borges, the Starbucks spokesperson, disputed that the worker had a key to the store, and said that he was “never scheduled as the only keyholder to open or close.”
Multiple baristas told Motherboard that he harassed women on his shift by asking them about their sexual preferences, suggesting a worker star in porn, and brushing up against them by the espresso machines. The worker was arrested on January 18, 2022 for “object sexual penetration,” but returned back to the store after posting $3,000 bail, according to court records. On March 9, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, aggravated sexual battery.
“In January, there were two weeks when [the worker] didn’t come in,” a barista at Willow Lawn said. “Now I know that was because he was in jail.”
“When I found out, I was sick to my stomach,” Devin Martin, a shift supervisor at the Willow Lawn Starbucks said. “Having experienced sexual assault in the past, knowing we worked alongside someone who had assaulted someone was traumatizing all over again.”
A former Starbucks barista who worked opening shifts alone with the worker at the Willow Lawn location told Motherboard, “I felt disgusted finding out that out I was in there with someone at 5 AM who Starbucks knows was accused of sexual assault and that they didn’t tell us. At 5 AM, there’s no one out and it’s dark so anything could happen and nobody would be around to witness or help.”
In an audio recording obtained by Motherboard, the Willow Lawn Starbucks store manager admits that for months she knew about the allegations, but did not inform her staff because “it’s a legal situation.”
“Even if I said anything I knew about it, I could lose my job,” she said in the recording.
Multiple workers at the Willow Lawn store told Motherboard that they thought Starbucks did not remove the worker who assaulted Claire quicker because they were focused on crushing the store’s union drive—telling them they could lose benefits if they vote in a union and posting anti-union messaging on store refrigerators. In recent months, union organizers around the country have been fired from Starbucks, for reasons including allegedly breaking a sink on purpose, allegedly entering the store alone when arriving to work early, and allegedly leaving at the end of a shift when only one worker was left in the store.
“There have been so many union organizers fired for nothing because of the union,” said Jillian O’Hare, a shift supervisor at the Willow Lawn Starbucks. “I want to say that everyone in our store feels sickened. We’re going through collective trauma. No one trusts management.”