The CEO of Starbucks won’t keep promises to his workers, but wants an end to “cynicism”

A “servant leader.”
A “servant leader.”
Image: Reuters/David Ryder
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who has somehow convinced himself there is public desire for him to be president, took a moment at yesterday’s board meeting to deliver some pious criticism of America’s unusually rancorous political season.

“Dysfunction and polarization have worsened,” the coffee entrepreneur said. Deep in a bout of Bloombergitis, Schultz warned of the failure of the American dream: “Sadly, our reservoir is running dry, depleted by cynicism, despair, division, exclusion, fear and indifference.”

“What is the role and responsibility of all of us, as citizens?” Schultz asked.

His employees have one answer: They want him to keep Starbucks’ promise to set their schedules at least 10 days in advance, and stop making them work consecutive shifts closing a location and then returning to open it early the next morning. So-called “clopening” shifts can entail working until 11pm and then starting again at 4am.

The scheduling problems have been an issue since at least 2014, when a New York Times investigation exposed how scheduling practices can be as problematic for workers as low pay or abusive treatment. The problem is especially difficult for parents, who must find a way to care for their children without knowing their work responsibilities more than a few days in advance.

The problem seems especially galling because the company uses scheduling software to match employee availability with the predicted demand. Experts suggest that this software could be used to provide more predictability for workers.

Starbucks has repeatedly said it will remedy these issues, but interviews with employees suggest they remain. The Center for Popular Democracy, a union-backed organization that runs advocacy campaigns for workers rights, published a survey of 200 workers (pdf) in September 2015 that found half received their schedules less than a week in advance and one in four worked the “clopening” shift.

Grant Medsker, who worked at a Starbucks in Seattle for about a year before quitting in January, told Quartz that managers often don’t follow dictates from headquarters. “Everyone runs their ship their own way, regardless of company policies,” he said.

Some franchise managers attribute the lack of follow-through on the company’s promise on schedules to pressure from higher-ups to keep labor costs down, which leads to chronic understaffing. Meanwhile, Starbucks earnings per share more than doubled between 2011 and 2015; in fiscal 2015 it had an operating income of $3.6 billion.

Quartz reached out to Starbucks but has not received a response. In the past, the company has noted that many of its employees see a flexible schedule as a perk, rather than a hindrance. The company also provides its part-time employees with access to health insurance and educational benefits that it says are more generous than comparable companies.

But given the company’s history of dubious social responsibility campaigns, it’s hard to see this failure to implement corporate policy as an accident. This is, after all, the executive who announced a personal boycott of political spending even as his company spent millions on lobbying.

“It’s not enough to talk about it, it’s not enough to say, ‘oh that’s really bad, I hope that changes,'” said Medsker, who volunteers with the labor-rights group Working Washington. ”We have an obligation to change what is wrong with our society.”

“It’s not about the choice we make every four years,” Schultz said yesterday. “This is about the choices we make every day.”