"That's not just a diabetic needle," a downtown Starbucks store manager told barista Carlos Nieto after he was pricked by a needle during a closing shift last August.
After a day of slogging through drink orders, Nieto, 21, said he and his coworkers were closing down the store. They all just wanted to go home. Nieto tossed the trash bags—some from behind the coffee bar and another from the bathroom—into a dumpster. When he tried to make room for more bags, something pricked his left index finger.
It turned out to be a used hypodermic needle.
When Nieto reported the incident, his store manager said he should "probably go to the doctor." But it was nearly 10 p.m. on a weekend night, Nieto said. And he had to work the next few days, too.
"Three days afterward, I went to the doctor," said Nieto. "The doctors told me I should've gone to the ER that night [of the incident]. The [required] medicine, which is a preventative for HIV, only works in the 72 hours after you've been pricked."
He mentally panicked while he walked to the pharmacy to get his medication.
"I was on the verge of tears outside the Bartell Drugs on Capitol Hill. And I was like, 'What if I have HIV? Starbucks might have just ruined my life.'"
Nieto spent the next month on the medication and in and out of clinics for blood tests. According to Nieto, doctors have told him that he has less than a 1 percent chance of getting the virus. So far, all of his tests have come back negative for HIV. And while that's some comfort for Nieto, that doesn't make the situation okay.
"If Starbucks cared about me, I shouldn't have even been in the situation to begin with... It was really stressful. It was hell," says Nieto. "I feel like there is not enough effort [being made] by the people in charge in order to [give] Starbucks workers a safer environment."
According to a spokesperson from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), regulations mandating the installation of sharps disposal boxes are geared toward the health industry because of regular exposure. A handful of Starbucks locations have sharps containers in their back rooms, the L&I spokesperson said, but none are required to, and sharps containers in back rooms aren't going to protect baristas from needles that are being disposed of in restroom trash bins.
Judging from the outpouring of e-mails from Starbucks baristas I have received after The Stranger published an article about all the unsafe injection sites across the city of Seattle—which includes the bathrooms of many of Seattle's Starbucks locations—it would appear that unsafe needle disposal is a problem for the iconic coffee shop.
So how could Starbucks be part of the solution in creating safer injection sites? It's not by stocking sharps containers behind closed doors in employee-only areas. It's by installing sharps disposal boxes in all of their bathrooms. Placing the containers in plain sight would encourage drug users to safely dispose of their needles, making the bathrooms a safe place for Starbucks employees and their customers.
"There's the Clover machines that we have to make coffee," said Nieto. "Starbucks bought the company, and each Clover machine costs $10,000. If you can spend $10,000 on a coffee machine, why can't you [spend money on sharps containers and improve] our working circumstances?"
That would mean putting sharps containers in the restrooms, not the back rooms.
According to Darrion Sjoquist, 19, a former Starbucks barista who was also pricked by a used needle, the issue boils down to the company's branding. Like Nieto, Sjoquist was pricked by a used needle while taking out the trash.
"When I spoke to the district manager, he said [getting sharps kits] wasn't something Starbucks did at all because of the image Starbucks is trying to portray," said Sjoquist. "But it poses an immediate danger to both baristas and the customers. We have a precedent of needles being found and a precedent of people getting pricked. This shouldn't happen to anyone else."
"We are aware of this citywide issue, and have protocols and resources in place to ensure our partners are prepared to take proper safety precautions as needed," a Starbucks spokesperson told The Stranger when we reached out for comment.
But is that really the case? According to Sjoquist, who worked at the Mount Baker store until March, that's far from the truth.
"Before the incident, there was no training. Even disposing of the [needles], we were told maybe put it in a bag and maybe label it with 'Be careful,'" says Sjoquist.
At least at his store, Sjoquist says, the managers knew what to do after he was pricked. After disinfecting his finger with rubbing alcohol, Sjoquist's manager told him to head to the doctor immediately. The former barista went to Zoom Clinic on Broadway, had blood drawn, and received medication.
When he came back to work, Sjoquist repeatedly asked his manager what Starbucks could do about safely disposing of needles.
"Time went by and nothing happened, nothing changed. When I asked [my manager] about getting a sharps kit or even just getting some training, she said she was working on getting rid of the garbage cans in the bathrooms and just replacing our paper towels with hand dryers," Sjoquist said. "I told her that it wouldn't stop the problem. They would just hide the [used needles] in different places or not hide them at all."
Sjoquist is going in for another HIV test at the beginning of next month.
"I know the chances of me getting a horrible disease are statistically low, but not knowing is still unsettling," Sjoquist said. "I'm more frustrated that Starbucks as a company isn't reacting in a way that's empathetic or wanting to fix the problem."