New York City officials have filed a lawsuit against Starbucks, claiming the Seattle-based coffee giant illegally fired a longtime Queens barista and union organizer.
It’s a claim Starbucks says it’s prepared to fight.
In the suit, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) alleges Austin Locke was fired in July “without just cause or a bona fide economic reason,” less than a month after employees at the Astoria store voted to unionize.
As a result, the department says it’s suing the company for violating the City’s “just cause” protections against wrongful termination under New York City Fair Workweek Law.
The law prohibits fast-food employers in the Big Apple “from discharging fast food employees who have completed a 30-day probation period, except for just cause or a bona fide economic reason,” according to legal documents obtained by FOX Business.
Whenever an employee is discharged or has hours reduced by 15% or more, the employer is obligated to give the worker notice of discharge within five days with an explanation, the department said in a release.
A Starbucks spokesperson told FOX Business the company does not comment on pending litigation but intends to “defend against the alleged violations of the New York City Just Cause Law.”
According to legal documents, Locke helped organize a vote to unionize at the store on June 6. That same day, Locke allegedly took sick leave because he felt ill. Two days later, after feeling better and testing negative for COVID-19, he returned to work, according to the documents.
Locke allegedly followed COVID-19 protocols by taking his temperature and signing a log book acknowledging that he did not feel ill. However, he started his shift without completing a COVID-19 questionnaire on a Starbucks electronic tablet because he couldn’t find one that was functioning, according to the documents.
Locke claimed his Starbucks supervisor, Jonathan Olivera, told him to stop working while he went to get cleaning solution. It was alleged that Olivera “placed his hand” on Locke’s chest to “forbid him from entering, and took the cleaning solution bucket” from him.
Locke asked to file an incident report and speak to district manager Kristina Freeman, who sent him home for the day, according to the paperwork.
Two days later, on June 10, Freeman and another store manager spoke with Locke at the end of his shift and asked him why he failed to complete a COVID-19 questionnaire on a Starbucks tablet, according to the documents. They also allegedly told him that Starbucks surveillance footage showed Olivera did not make physical contact with him
Locke allegedly asked for the surveillance footage but was not given any. On July 5, Locke was given a notice of separation, which stated that he was “terminated because he violated Starbucks Health and Safety Standards by failing to complete a COVID-19 questionnaire and falsely reporting that Supervisor Olivera made physical contact with him,” according to the documents.
DCWP Commissioner Vilda Vera Mayuga said in a statement that violations of New York City’s Fair Workweek Law are “unacceptable.”
“As we approach Labor Day, it’s important to remember that workers are the backbone of our city and deserve the right to organize to promote safer and fairer work practices,” the commissioner added.
The department is fighting for Locke to be rehired. It is also seeking “civil penalties, as well as restitution and back pay required under the law, which continue to accrue” until Locke is back at work, according to legal documents.
Locke also said in a statement that this isn’t happening to just him.
“Starbucks continues to wrongfully fire pro-union workers nationwide in retaliation for union organizing,” Locke said.
Starbucks Workers United, which is the group leading the unionization efforts nationwide, is demanding that “Starbucks rehire all illegally fired workers and put an end to their illegal union-busting campaign,” Locke added.
More than 220 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize.
The company has opposed employee unionization efforts. It even asked labor board officials to temporarily suspend all union elections at its U.S. stores, citing allegations from a board employee that regional NLRB officials improperly coordinated with union organizers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.