Last Monday, 21-year-old barista Coulson Loptmann says he was fired from a downtown Seattle Starbucks where he’d worked for more than a year. The reason? He ate a sandwich that had been thrown away. Really. Like most cafes, the coffee giant gets rid of food that has expired; they donate what they can and toss the more perishable items.
Loptmann, who says he couldn’t get enough hours to pay his bills and survives partly on his food stamps, explains, “I hadn’t eaten all day and I was on a seven-hour shift.” A coworker had just marked some breakfast sandwiches out of stock, and he figured no one would mind if he grabbed one of the plastic-wrapped sausage sandwiches out of the trash can.
But Starbucks did mind. According to Loptmann, his manager sat him down a week later and told him she’d found out about the sandwich and contacted HR, “and they consider it stealing, and it’s against policy. So I’m sorry, but I have to terminate you.” She fired him on the spot.
The incident comes up just as fast-food workers prepare for another strike this Thursday—and this time, they're asking baristas to join them. Seattle's fast-food walkouts this spring were extraordinarily successful, shutting down multiple restaurants, and this week, organizers for Good Jobs Seattle are encouraging low-wage workers in coffee shops to join the national push for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
For the company's part, Starbucks spokesman Zack Hutson says that while they can’t comment on individual employees for privacy reasons, he can confirm that “it is a violation of our policy to consume marked-out products." But he says it’s not considered stealing—it’s for the employees’ own good. “We do not want our partners to consume potentially spoiled products and get sick.” Could someone be fired for breaking the policy? I asked. “In general,” says Hutson, “a partner would not be separated for a single, minor infraction like violating this policy. However, a partner could be separated for an infraction like this if it was the culmination of broader, ongoing performance issues.”
In other words: Yes, it is entirely possible for a Starbucks worker on food stamps to be fired (err, “separated”) for eating a sandwich out of the trash.
Loptmann insists he didn't have any "ongoing performance issues" before the incident or problems with his manager. “The coworkers and my manager were actually really great,” he says. Loptmann insists the policy he was taught "never says anything about don’t eat it," and that his manager cited stealing, not his own health and safety, as the reason for termination. "I understand completely they don’t want someone to mark something out just to eat it," says Loptmann. "I didn’t mark it out, someone else did." Of his manager, he says charitably, “It’s not her fault… She knows what it’s like. But she can’t do anything… These were the policies put in place by people who actually have power.”
Loptmann had been hired in 2012 as a close-to-full-time employee, he says, but after a couple of months, his hours started disappearing. Soon he was working anywhere between 23 and 32 hours a week, for $9.94 an hour plus about $30 a week in tips, with a schedule he calls “extremely variable.” Even if he was scheduled, he could still be sent home if the store got slow.
Loptmann says he had to get food stamps to make ends meet, and scraping up enough for lunch every day was still hard. “It sounds ridiculous, but having bread and mustard and mayonnaise and some kind of meat and lettuce—it doesn’t sound expensive, but that adds up… There were some days where I lived off of Starbucks food.” He got a 30 percent discount and a couple of free coffees a day.
The day of the sandwich incident, he says, his coworker was marking sandwiches out of stock and throwing them away. “She said, ‘What a waste, huh?’” remembers Loptmann. “And she tossed it in the garbage. I figured, it’s in plastic, it’s fine. So I reached in and grabbed it.”
As for scheduling concerns, Hutson says that’s “based on partner availability and the needs of the store,” and that employees can indeed be sent home when the store is slow, though they’ll be “paid a minimum number of hours.” But, Hutson continues, “most of our store partners work at Starbucks because they want to work part time. They appreciate the flexibility and the fact that they’re still able to take advantage of the benefits we offer.”
Still, those benefits are cold comfort to low-wage workers. “In every low-wage job that I have worked, the health insurance has been offered more as a novelty," says Subway worker Caroline Durocher, one of the strike organizers trying to recruit baristas. "Because it's too expensive for anyone to afford. It’s more so they can say they offer it." Loptmann was paying for health insurance, but that only made it harder to afford other things—like food.
He says he'll be supporting the striking works this Thursday as he looks for a new job.
What does Starbucks think of the upcoming protests? “We support the intent of various efforts to ensure that working Americans earn a decent and competitive wage,” says Starbucks' Hutson. At the same time, he acknowledges that raising the minimum wage would have “potential impact to businesses."