The Heinous New Parental Leave Policy Splitting Starbucks in Two

The Svabeniks are getting riled up. It’s two weeks before Jess will give birth to the couple’s fourth son, Roman, and under the shade surrounding their house in Gig Harbor, Washington, she and her husband John are second-guessing their preparedness.

Who will get up with the baby when John’s alarm clock blares at 3am, calling him to his 10-hour shift at Trader Joe’s? How will Jess breastfeed once she’s back at work at Starbucks, where her break is shorter by 10 minutes than the time she needs to pump? How much more debt can their credit cards take?

How will Jess even, after she peeks over the edge of the crib in the morning, leave the house to go to work?
“It all sounds so doable on paper,” says Jess. “[But] Roman being there sleeping and me going to work sounds impossible.”

Jess resents having to make the choice at all so soon after giving birth. As a retail employee of the country’s most profitable coffee chain, she is entitled to six weeks of parental leave at partial pay after Roman is born. (Her leave will probably be unpaid, since she has worked at Starbucks for less than one year.) But starting on 1 October, employees at Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters – just an hour’s drive from Jess’s home – and its other corporate offices will be entitled to 16 weeks of fully paid leave upon giving birth, and fathers or adoptive parents will get 12.

Announcing the new policy in January, Starbucks called it “reflective of our mission and commitment to be a different kind of company and put our people first”.

But the new policy doesn’t increase the length of leave for in-store workers who give birth, or for new fathers and adoptive parents, who will continue to get none.

As the company’s announcement received laudatory headlines, Jess joined a group of Starbucks baristas and store managers in asking the company: why are we treated differently?

“It is in no way fair to the average worker,” Jess says. “You can’t have corporate without us. So why would one have a better benefit than the other?”

A similar disparity is replicated by dozens of the country’s top employers. The US is one of just four countries that doesn’t have a national policy of paid family leave, allowing a highly unequal landscape shaped by class, race, politics and the caprices of individual employers to emerge in its place.

A recent survey found that Walmart, Kroger, Nike and Marriott are among the major corporations offering no paid leave to their tens of thousands of retail and service employees when they become new parents. Dads and adoptive parents at Starbucks retail locations also get none – putting LGBT employees at a particular disadvantage, critics say.

Paid leave, concluded the group conducting the survey, is “an elite benefit”.

As the Svabeniks make their plans, they cast an occasional eye at their other children. Ash, 11, and Holling, six, are egging on Holling’s twin, Avery, as he wedges himself into a baby bouncer.

So that someone can always be with the children, John and Jess rarely see each other except on overlapping days off. “We pass each other for maybe an hour during the day,” Jess says, with John’s mother, who lives with them but travels for work, filling in the gaps. “That’s how we make this work.”

Once Roman is born, Jess will explore whether she can stay home longer. But it will mean piling more debt on credit cards that already have plenty. Although Jess’s delivery was covered, the couple will wind up owing the hospital $1,800 because, as an insurance agent will cheerily inform her, “the baby becomes billable” the moment he’s born. Another $600 will be gone a week later, when Roman’s breathing becomes uneven and Jess whisks him to the ER.

But money, Svabenik says, is not as big an obstacle for the family as time.

“In this country, the people that drive the economy every day are the ones getting the short end of the stick,” she continues . “You’re made to feel like, if you’re a lower-wage worker, you should have done something else with your life if you wanted to spend time with your kids.”

The annual meeting of Starbucks shareholders took place this March in an auditorium near Seattle’s Space Needle. It was the 25th yearly meeting since the company became publicly traded and the last of these gatherings Howard Schultz would convene as CEO. Despite the occasion, Schultz’s wife was absent, he said. She was welcoming their newborn grandchild in New York.

Schultz, in a slim navy suit, told the 2,800 people gathered of his early struggles to take the company public. Prospective investors had caviled at “the benevolence of Starbucks management”, he said, which gave all employees health insurance and stock options; they wanted the money spent on investor returns. For Schultz, it was the moment that came to define Starbucks’ corporate culture.

“Not every decision in business is an economic one,” Schultz said. “We’re also in business to create value for our people. And I want to share with you, after 25 years of being a public company, I think what we’re most proud of is the unbelievable commitment and conviction that we’ve had to our partners and their families.”

Paid Leave for the United States (Plus), a group supporting the Starbucks retail employees who are demanding more leave, has called Starbucks’ parental leave policy “one of the most unequal” but has said the company is not alone.

At Yum! Brands headquarters, birth mothers are given 16 paid weeks, while new parents working in its restaurants – KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell – get none. With more than half a million workers, Yum! Brands is one of the largest employers in the country.

The disparity is even greater at Amazon, where mothers who are full-time employees are offered 20 weeks’ paid leave, and parents who work part-time – mostly those with jobs in the company’s warehouses – get none.

Still, Starbucks’ employees see a need to close the gap. Among Schultz’s audience during the shareholders meeting was Kristen Picciolo, a barista from Medina, Ohio, who became a first-time mom in November. During a Q&A session, Picciolo addressed the stage.

“My son is four months old,” Picciolo said, her voice quavering. “And I flew to Seattle because I know as a parent how important it is to spend those first few months with your baby … I just want you to maybe reconsider and extend this crucial benefit to all employees.”

Picciolo and her boyfriend, Seth, a server at Ruby Tuesday, moved in with her mother and put the utility bills on a payment plan so she could afford to stay home with her son, Adam, for several months.

Starbucks has argued that its parental leave policy for its in-store workers “exceptional within the retail industry”. Its new policy covers most part-time workers and raises the compensation retail employees receive during their family leave from partial pay to their full paychecks. (Under the old policy, Picciolo was 200 hours short of earning partially paid time off.)

“Our current and now expanded parental leave benefits,” Starbucks says, “exceed what most retailers provide full- or part-time workers.”

This is true. In the US, only 14% of workers have paid leave through their employers. The majority of those workers are white and white-collar. The federal Family Medical Leave Act guarantees full-time workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but the people taking advantage are mostly college-educated, married mothers.

But for most new parents, the length of time they devote to caring for their babies is determined by how badly the family needs their next paycheck.

As a result, the country has barely begun to broach the topic of how much paid family leave is enough.

When he was a candidate, President Donald Trump proposed six weeks, or the minimum recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and what Starbucks will offer birth mothers in retail this fall.

The average amount of leave a new mother in the US takes, whether or not she is paid, is 10 weeks. And research shows that more paid leave is needed to ensure healthy babies. The nonpartisan New America Foundation put the ideal length of time parents should have combined at 26 paid weeks.

That is roughly the amount of paid time Jess and John would have if they were executives at their companies. Trader Joe’s, where John is a store manager, doesn’t give its retail employees any paid leave to care for new children. (John has saved up two weeks of paid vacation.)

A Starbucks spokesman, Reggie Borges, said: “From a retail perspective, our [parental leave] benefit is one of the best in the industry, if not the best.”

But unlike Starbucks, some corporations do offer the same amount of paid leave regardless of whether an employee is corporate or retail, full-time or part-time. Wells Fargo and Nordstrom give all birth moms 16 and 12 weeks, respectively – less to fathers and adoptive parents. Ikea and Bank of America offer all new parents 16 weeks.

Resistance to lack of paid parental leave is eroding. It took 11 years for the first three states to establish paid family leave, but three more states have set up paid leave programs since the start of 2016. That year’s presidential race was the first in which Republican candidates, not just Democrats, supported a national policy of paid family leave. The vast majority of the public and even many business leaders support the expansion of paid family leave.
vabenik and Picciolo say they like working for Starbucks. At a time when many leading employers are treating labor like a problem to be solved, the world’s largest coffee company has raised baristas’ pay and expanded their benefits to include four years of online college tuition.

The three say they are surprised to find themselves at an impasse with the company over something as fundamental as family time.

“I think it means we live in a society which is very comfortable penalizing people for just living their lives,” said Annie Sartor, an organizer with Plus. “And we really need to think hard about: what does it mean for this country to support families?”

As long as Congress fails to address whether family leave should be paid, she said, the question (and the cost) will default to employers, who are free to treat paid family leave like a corporate enticement. The better the job, the better the perks.

That is what a Starbucks executive has apparently told employees pressing for equitable paid leave. One day before the shareholders meeting, Svabenik and others met with Ron Crawford, Starbucks’ vice-president of global benefits, who told them to think of the corporate leave policy as a fringe benefit. Starbucks wasn’t trying to save money by offering retail employees shorter leave, Crawford said, according to Svabenik; it was trying to retain talent by offering corporate employees more leave than is typical. (Starbucks declined to make Crawford available for an interview.)

In June, Niko Walker, a California barista advocating for dads and adoptive parents to have equal leave, sat down with Crawford again. Starbucks has frequently said it welcomes feedback on its paid family leave policy. So Walker wanted to know: was equal leave for retail employees a real possibility in the next five years? Would it at least be the osubject of serious discussion inside the company?

One way or the other, Walker recalled, Crawford wouldn’t say.

Today, the Svabeniks’ house is “babydom”. Roman was born on 26 July, plunging Jess and John into a joyful state of exhaustion and demanding a constant routine of feeding, burping, petting and cooing.

In the days leading up to Roman’s birth, the couple reminisced about the twins. Holling and Avery were born in California, where the state funds six weeks of partial pay for all new parents through a worker-funded insurance program.

“We’ve been talking and talking and talking about what it felt like to be equal with the other residents of the state,” Jess said. “We happened to live near Silicon Valley, and we were getting the same leave, in concept, as someone who worked at Facebook. They got paid time off at their rate of pay; we got the same amount of paid time off. And we worked at Trader Joe’s and as flight attendants. We can’t get over how amazing that level playing field was. They got to sustain their families the way they did and we got to sustain our family the was we did. I can’t stop thinking about that.”

In June, Jess and Walker walked a stack of petitions over to corporate headquarters – they had gathered signatures of support from employees in different Starbucks stores throughout Seattle. On the ground floor of the building, Jess spotted – what else? – a Starbucks.

“I got so frustrated,” Jess recalled. “The people who work upstairs, when they get pregnant, they get 12, 18 weeks. And then just below you, the person who makes your latte every day goes for six weeks. And they work in the same building.

“How can you not get that?” she said. “How can you not see the person who makes your latte every day?”

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