Starbucks Is Being Sued By New York City Over A Controversial Firing

In the newest chapter of Starbucks' long and tumultuous unionization saga, the coffee giant is being sued for wrongful termination — again. In August 2022, Starbucks was court-ordered to reinstate a group of workers known as the "Memphis Seven" after firing them in February for pro-union efforts (via The Hill). This time, however, the plaintiff is New York City.

New York City is demanding that Starbucks reinstates Austin Locke — a veteran barista who engaged in unionization efforts – with backpay, according to CNBC. Prior to his termination, Locke worked at a Starbucks location in Queens but was terminated for "failing to fill out a Covid-19 questionnaire" and accusations of an alleged physical altercation with a store supervisor. When Starbucks insisted that it had surveillance camera evidence of the altercation, Locke requested to see the footage and was denied.

This case against Starbucks will be the first tried under the "Just Cause" worker protection rule, which NYC enacted on July 4, 2021. Most companies in the U.S. operate under "at-will employment," which essentially means a boss can fire their employee without a real reason and without notice, explains Bloomberg. As per the Just Cause law, however, employers at fast-food restaurants in New York cannot legally fire an employee without provable evidence of employee fallibility. Employers also cannot reduce a worker's hours by greater than 15% without a "legitimate economic reason." Here's what it means for the Pumpkin Spice Latte-purveyor. 

NYC has a bone to pick with unlawful firings

At the time of its ratification, Bloomberg wrote that the Just Cause law had the potential to "usher in an historic shift of negotiating power away from bosses to employees," and that "strong enforcement" of the law would "further empower workers to organize with far less fear of reprisals." Indeed, it looks like "Just Cause" is being enforced with an iron fist, and it's accomplishing its mission already. When asked about the lawsuit, a Starbucks representative wrote, "We do not comment on pending litigation," via CNBC. "However, we do intend to defend against the alleged violations of the New York City Just Cause Law."

It's doubtful, though, that New York City Council Member Brad Lander (who led the motion's ratification) will agree. "No longer should fast food workers have to fear that a boss' bad mood or a small mistake will cost them their livelihood," Landers declared. "I look forward to working with DCWP and worker advocates to ensure that workers know their rights and are protected from unjust firings."