Story at a glance

  • Until recently, HMSHost was the exclusive operator of Starbucks locations in airports and rest areas across the United States.
  • Multiple employees of Starbucks locations operated by HMSHost are claiming discrimination based on gender identity and race in a new report by labor union Unite Here.
  • HMSHost is refuting the report, saying Unite Here is trying to gain leverage for negotiations with the company.

“What’s your name?” asks a new Starbucks campaign presenting their coffee shops as a safe space for transgender customers to be recognized for who they are. 

But some transgender employees at Starbucks locations in airports say the courtesy isn’t extended to the other side of the counter, citing repeated instances of misgendering and use of their dead name, or the name assigned to them at birth. 

Current and former employees of HMSHost at Starbucks locations are making accusations of discrimination and pay inequity in a new report from Unite Here, a labor union representing some HMSHost employees. 

HMSHost, a highway and airport food-service company, has partnered with Starbucks since 1991 to operate coffee shops in their name at airports and rest stops across the country. So while Starbucks advertises LGBTQ+ inclusive policies including increasing health insurance options for transgender employees and updating their technology systems so in-store documentation represents employees’ chosen names, HMSHost employees at airport Starbucks locations are not covered by those policies. 

In January, the companies ended their exclusivity agreement, allowing Starbucks to work with other airport concessionaires and HMSHost to partner with other coffee companies. But HMSHost still runs hundreds of coffee shops under the Starbucks name, including at the Orlando International Airport. Jay Kelly, a transgender man, has been working there since January 2017, before he transitioned. 

After he chose the name "Jay," he informed his coworkers and managers. He said his coworkers would occasionally use the wrong name, but apologized afterwards. But in a complaint being filed against HMSHost with the city of Orlando, he says some of his supervisors have repeatedly misgendered him and even disciplined him more harshly than other coworkers. 

“It’s getting to a point where I just want to cry and I can’t even breathe. I just want everything to be fair and to be treated equal as a human being because everyone else I’m sure is a human being,” he said in the report. 

Kelly and other transgender workers said they have asked for their chosen names to be used on schedules, but were asked for legal proof of a legal name change, which they did not have. But Cora Noble-Bray, a barista at Portland International Airport, says managers have used nicknames for cisgender coworkers on schedules that do not match their legal names. 

“What we’re interested in is what Starbucks stands for. We’re interested in equality in LGBTQ policies, we’re interested in racial equality and pay equality,” she said.

Gabriel Ocasio, a coworker of Kelly, is also filing a complaint with the city of Orlando alleging discrimination. 

"It’s been a fight from the very start with management against who I am and letting me be who I am," said Ocasio, who is also a member of the LBGTQ+ community. 

Ocasio said he was fired "for drinking tap water,” but believes it was his involvement with Unite Here that led to his dismissal. 

HMSHost said they would not comment on specific cases for privacy reasons.

“HMSHost does not discriminate against our associates with respect to pay or any other term or condition of employment,” said a company spokesperson. “Unite Here continues to spread false information about HMSHost with the sole objective of exerting pressure and gaining leverage.”

The report also claims racial discrimination and pay inequity. In a survey of about 300 workers conducted by the union, the report says the median pay for black baristas across 142 locations in 27 U.S. airports was $1.85 less than for white baristas. Immigrant workers also reported being told to stop speaking their preferred language at work.

Zeyad ElMashak, who also works at the Orlando airport location, says he's heard supervisors and managers who are not black use the n-word. 

“Everyone just brushes it off because they’re worried about repercussions and other managers and supervisors take it lightly,” he said. 

HMSHost said they are fully committed to racial pay equity where it is possible and refute the report’s findings.       

“As Unite Here is aware, all wage rates have been negotiated and agreed upon by the union during its collective bargaining agreements with HMSHost and these rates are not based on race. So, Unite Here’s allegations that racial pay disparities exist with HMSHost is completely untrue,” said the company’s spokesperson. 

The report emphasizes differences between Starbucks’ policies of 100 percent racial pay equity and LGBTQ+ inclusive practices and those governing HMSHost employees wearing a Starbucks apron in airport coffee shops.

"It’s shocking to me that they would allow their lucense to be leased out and that this kind of discrimination is happening where they leased out that license, where they leased out the brand," said Christopher J. Cuevas, Executive Director of QLatinx, who is working with Kelly and Oscasio to file their complaints.

Cleve Jones, a prominent LGBTQ+ activist working with Unite Here, said they have reached out to Starbucks, but the company has declined to meet with them so far. Starbucks has not responded to a request for comment.

Published on Feb 25, 2020