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City Sues Starbucks For Firing Worker Behind Astoria Store’s Effort to Unionize

Austin Locke, pictured, claims he was fired by Starbucks in retaliation for leading a store in Astoria to successfully vote to unionize (Photo provided by Luigi Morris)

Sept. 2, 2022 By Michael Dorgan

The city has filed a lawsuit against Starbucks alleging that the coffee chain illegally fired a worker in retaliation for helping to unionize a store in Astoria.

The lawsuit, filed by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), claims Starbucks illegally sacked barista Austin Locke days after the 22-28 31st St. store where he worked voted to unionize – the second store in Queens to do so.

The coffee giant claimed that it fired Locke, 28, for failing to complete a COVID-19 questionnaire after returning to work having been out sick, according to the complaint. Starbucks also claimed Locke, who had been with the store since October 2016, falsely accused a supervisor of making physical contact with him.

However, Locke said he was really fired by the company on July 5 in retaliation for leading the store’s successful vote to unionize days earlier.

Locke claims that he and other pro-union Starbucks workers around the country are being targeted by the company for their efforts to unionize. Around 200 locations across the nation have voted to unionize since December.

The DCWP investigated Locke’s firing and determined Starbucks was in violation of the city’s Fair Workweek Law, known as the “just cause” labor law, by ousting him. Under the law, fast food workers can only be terminated for legitimate economic reasons or for just cause reasons such as misconduct or incompetency.

The DCWP lawsuit, filed with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), is the first time the city has pursued such a case under the law since it took effect in July 2021.

The Department, according to the lawsuit, is demanding that Starbucks give Locke his job back and provide him with back pay for lost work. The DCWP also wants Starbucks to pay undetermined civil penalties.

Starbucks meanwhile intends to defend itself from the alleged violations of the “just cause” law, a company spokesperson told the Queens Post. The spokesperson said Locke failed to follow the company’s COVID-19 guidelines, which potentially put other individuals at the store at risk.

Locke, according to the city’s complaint, returned to work on June 8 after being out sick for two days. He said he followed Starbucks’ protocol by taking his temperature and signing a logbook stating that he had no symptoms of the virus.

He said that he planned to complete a COVID-19 questionnaire on a Starbucks electronic tablet but was unable to find a functioning device. He then began his shift without completing it, the filing states.

Shortly into his June 8 shift, Locke said he attempted to go into a back room to retrieve a cleaning solution but was stopped by a supervisor whom Locke claims inappropriately placed his hand on his chest. Locke then made a complaint of unwanted physical contact to a Starbucks district manager.

On July 5, just days after the store voted to unionize, Locke was sacked by the company.

Starbucks cited Locke’s failure to fill out the questionnaire on June 8 and video footage allegedly disproving his complaint of unwanted physical contact. It is unclear if Locke worked at the store in the intervening weeks.

Locke said he asked to see the footage, but Starbucks refused to show him the video, according to the complaint.

The DCWP said it obtained the footage as part of its investigation — but it did not back up Starbucks’ claim since the incident was out of shot, the suit says.

Locke maintains he is part of a larger cohort of workers that Starbucks is railroading for their unionization efforts. More than 85 workers across the U.S. who have been involved in organizing at the coffee chain have been dismissed in recent months, according to the workers group Starbucks Workers United (SWU).

Locke called for an end to the alleged practice in a statement Friday.

“Starbucks continues to wrongfully fire pro-union workers nationwide in retaliation for union organizing, Locke said. “Starbucks Workers United demands Starbucks rehire all illegally fired workers and put an end to their illegal union-busting campaign.”

He also called on the company to negotiate with workers at the store for better conditions. They previously said they are unionizing to fight for an hourly rate of $25, free and full health care coverage regardless of hours worked, more paid vacation and sick time, as well as expanded childcare and maternity leave.

Queens Councilmember and Council Speaker Adrienne Adams praised the DCWP for taking up the case.

“Protecting workers’ rights to organize and unionize is critical, and employers who try to undermine and violate those rights must be held accountable,” Adams said.

“Starbucks’ actions were not just wrong, but illegal… As a city, we must continue to safeguard the rights of workers to ensure they have the respect, dignity, and conditions they deserve.”

The city has filed a lawsuit against Starbucks. The suit accuses the coffee giant of illegally firing a worker who spearheaded a campaign to unionize the 22-28 31st St. store in Astoria (Photo: Google Maps)

email the author: news@queenspost.com

6 Comments

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Manifest Destiny

Vote Zeldin. He wouldnt and cant do anything if elected but the Dems need a message that they cant just allow all this shit with impunity

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Pat Macnamara

Illegally fire someone? Who writes this dreck? In New York they can fire you for anything they please. Unionize for a dead end job. Unions will be more than happy to take your monthly dues, launder the money, and do nothing when the corporation says anything. Taxpayer money being wasted on a moronic suit to justify another useless, unenforceable piece of anemic legislature.

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Samantha

New York is an at-will employment state, a company can fire you for any reason (or no reason at all), and likewise an employee can resign for any reason. When I’ve been let go from jobs in the past, I just looked for (and found) a new one to replace the old one. And I work in a competitive industry, plus my specific skill set isn’t always in demand, but if you just put a lot of work into the job search then something always turns up. I looked up how much a Barista at Starbucks in NYC makes and it’s close to minimum wage, those jobs are more common and easy to train in, so I think he should just move on and find something else. Especially at his age, he’s nearing 30. Why fight to work at a company that you think is terrible? Either find another job, or learn a trade so you can be a contractor/self employed and then make your own rules.

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Keitho the starleto

Did you guys see that video in the city middle day that Benz with lehoodie James jumping out and robbing a 55 year old who was driving an suv. Lmao wth is going on here. I can’t even joke about this anymore. This is out of control. Seriously. People need to rally for justice. Damn shame

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