Starbucks has a pioneering new health policy for trans workers

Starbucks pride.
Starbucks pride.
Image: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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Starbucks has made generous employee benefits part of its corporate identity, and it’s doing so again with an expanded coverage of medical procedures for its trans workers.

While the coffee giant has covered gender reassignment surgery since 2012, the company’s health insurance policy will now cover procedures such as breast and facial surgery, skin grafts, and hair transplants, treatments viewed as medically essential by trans people but often regarded as cosmetic, and therefore not covered, by insurers.

To get its policy right, Starbucks consulted with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), which issues a 120-page guide for medical professionals treating trans people. Starbucks was the first company to directly ask WPATH’s advice, according to Jamison Green, the organization’s former president.

“Starbucks was not afraid to ask all the right questions and demand that people get the best possible care,” he said in a statement on Starbucks’ website. “We produced a list of the most crucial benefits and those that are deemed problematic to insurance companies, such as facial feminization and electrolysis.”

Access to those procedures can be lifesaving for a population with high rates of suicide, Green said.

For decades, Starbucks has prospered by selling coffee drinks while aligning itself with progressive causes. Under the guidance of Howard Schultz, its former CEO and chairman (and potential presidential candidate), Starbucks mastered the art of turning social responsibility into a powerful marketing tool. Shutting down its stores for racial-bias training last month after a racial incident in Philadelphia, for example, only further burnished its image as a corporation willing to tackle tough questions. (Not all of its employees benefit from its corporate largess equally, however).

Expanding the health coverage for trans workers could have a similar benefit to Starbucks’ bottom line. Not only are trans-friendly workplaces likely to gain the patronage and loyalty of the trans and larger LGBTQ communities, they also benefit from the diverse perspectives offered by trans workers, according to Alison Ash Fogarty and Lily Zheng in their new book, Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace.

“When trans employees feel a sense of psychological safety in the workplace, they are far more able to feel safe speaking their mind, putting forth novel ideas and challenging old ways of thinking,” they write.

As with many of Starbucks’ employee-friendly initiatives, the company isn’t trumpeting their financial benefits, and increasing profitability may not be the primary or even secondary reasons for introducing them. But as policies like covering trans medical procedures trickle down from leaders like Starbucks to a wider range of companies, offering a business case can only help convince skeptical executives elsewhere to get on board.