Baristas enduring assaults, jarring confrontations, ongoing harassment remain a focal point for trying to unionize Sacramento Starbucks 

Rachel Holman, left, and Darrow Peirce, right, talk to the public about unionizing in front of their Starbucks location on J Street (Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson)

It was the morning after Christmas 2022 when Rachel Holman walked into the Starbucks at 1901 J St. and noticed huge pieces of plywood fixed across shattered windows. Having worked there for six years, she already knew what happened. Frantic texts had reached Holman the day before describing the ordeal: It involved a man who’d broken the café’s windows on several previous occasions coming back, this time with some seriously destructive Yuletide rage. Holman had snapped photos of the earlier incidents. Now, the man’s latest onslaught had basically ruined the whole back section of the store.  

Holman didn’t have too much time to dwell on that symbolism as lamps outside were lighting the pre-dawn streetscape. She was opening the café, prepping for the earliest espresso-drinkers, when a stranger suddenly burst inside from the shadows. 

“It was still completely dark out, I mean, we didn’t even see the guy walking up,” Holman recalled. “We didn’t know he was there until he was inside our store.”

The stranger announced himself with a violent roar of curses. Holman was making a pot of cold brew as she heard him shouting the C-word at her. Turning her head, she was only certain of one thing — this wasn’t that man who had wrecked the café the day before. Holman knew that other character. Scraggly, disheveled, teetering, this new intruder was heavyset with a medium build, and he was fixating on the 5-foot-2 barista. 

Holman was practically alone. Starbucks had only scheduled one other employee to open, a shift supervisor. Holman says that coworker, whose first name is Alex, was shouting back at the man, but it was too late: The unwell visitor was reaching for a row of ceramic mugs on display and then hurtling them as porcelain missiles right at Holman’s head. The 27-year-old started ducking in real time. Still holding her cold brew, Holman was taking evasive maneuvers as the stranger kept trying to hit her. She remembers things exploding all around on the tiles. 

“He was definitely drunk,” Holman said of her attacker. “I think that’s why he missed my face so many times.” 

Holman watched as her assailant overturned a display case, sending its items crashing down. 

“Then he circled back around and picked up another cup,” she recounted. 

Starbucks won’t allow its baristas to carry any personal protective items. No pepper spray. No hand-stunners. No pocket knives. As Holman fumbled to free her phone from her pocket, she knew that she couldn’t take her eyes off her attacker. She saw him winding another mug back like a baseball pitcher on the mound. Holman was still holding a water container for her cold brew. She doused him in the face. 

Then everything slowed down. Whatever spell was over the man, the water seemed to break it. 

“I don’t think he was expecting that,” Holman reflected. “He walked in circles for a few seconds, continuing to yell at us, and then he just walked out.”     

The individual had vanished into the streets of Midtown by the time police arrived. 

Holman’s encounter marked back-to-back incidents for the J Street Starbucks to end 2022 on, but Sacramento police records indicate that those harry moments were not outliers. The Starbucks at 1901 J St., and the Starbucks at 7th and K streets, have both experienced a steady stream of public safety problems. Just last month, on March 30, Sacramento police officers were called to the K Street Starbucks because a man had allegedly attacked a customer with an axe. According to the police, that suspect, 59-year-old Ronald Johnson, had been holding the weapon up to the windows for people to see — and at one point struck someone on the shoulder with it. Police arrested Johnson and charged him with two counts of battery and brandishing a weapon. 

Sacramento Police Sergeant Zach Eaton acknowledged that his department is aware of repeated problems at both the J Street and K Street Starbucks.

“Just looking at the data from this year, there’s been a very decent amount of calls for service at both those locations,” Eaton confirmed. “Any time we have a location like that in the city that has high calls for service, we’re constantly evaluating. … Our Downtown Command has been in contact with Starbucks corporate about those locations and safety at those locations. And we’re working very closely with them on those topics.” 

But Holman and her co-worker Darrow Pierce say that Starbucks isn’t working closely with its own employees on those challenges, and that’s one of the main reasons it’s trying to unionize this week. Employees at the K street locations have similar concerns. Baristas at both stores have told reporters they want on-site security in the dark morning and dark evening hours, more and better security cameras — ones with audio capability that cover the entire floor — and de-escalation training for rank-and-file baristas, not just the supervisors and above. They claim that Starbucks has repeatedly denied those requests. The only answer, the baristas contend, is to unionize and force corporate to the bargaining table. 

The National Labor Relations Board was at the J Street location to hold a vote on unionizing Thursday, and did the same at the K Street location Friday. Baristas at the K Street cafe voted 11-to-2 to unionize.   

Starbucks’s headquarters maintains that unionizing is not in the best interest of its employees and that, in the case of Sacramento’s urban core, it has been working to make those baristas feel more secure.

“Where safety issues in and around a store continue to jeopardize the well-being of our partners, we have been working with deep care and urgency to take action,” Starbucks representative Andrew Trull wrote in an email last week, laying out a number of precautions the company has taken for its J and K street cafes. These include providing some employees with de-escalation training and providing employees “with access to safe rides to and from work through Lyft.” 

For Holman, those steps haven’t been enough when weighed against the ongoing threats.

“I honestly feel like getting assaulted at work is a rite of passage at this point,” Holman said. “You’re not a true barista until you’ve been assaulted. … We had several supervisors who’d been assaulted. We had a customer who came back after closing time and beat up one of our shift supervisors with a baseball bat. … We had one guy who was just standing in line and all the sudden turned around and started beating a guy up. We had to lock our doors. That guy was later arrested, and he had a giant butcher knife in his backpack. We’ve had people overdose in our bathroom. I’ve had poop thrown at me and smeared on me.”

Cups of coffee in empty spaces  

Nick Medeiro was one of the first Sacramento Starbucks workers to talk to the media about unionizing. That was in mid-February and Medeiro was still reeling from one of his supervisors being assaulted.

“She had asked someone to leave because they were laying on the floor inside,” Medeiro recalled. “She was holding the door open for them, trying to be polite. As they walked through, they pushed her up against the door and started trying to hit her. And a bunch of our baristas stepped in, and a whole bunch of customers stepped in, trying to keep this guy from hitting her. That’s just how violent and dangerous it is for us.”

Flash-forward to today, the Starbucks on K Street has a pretty unusual look: All its furniture is removed, and half the café is walled off and empty — its windows looking out on 7th Street blacked-out. The café’s public restrooms are a thing of the past, too. Starbucks corporate acknowledges that it made these changes because of problems that kept happening there, presumably unwell individuals who’d linger around the street and find reasons to come inside. This means Starbucks’ longtime slogan of being “the third place” that one hangs out at between work and home no longer applies. It’s a grab-and-go only store now. For some, that’s particularly ironic because of its location: The City of Sacramento and the Sacramento Kings may have spent more than $500 million renovating this section of downtown into the “state-of-the-art” Golden 1 Center, but the Starbucks sitting at the base of this shiny citadel literally has no furniture. When it comes to City Hall acknowledging broader safety concerns downtown, an obvious question arises of whether it’s more than a matter of “Starbucks has no furniture,” but rather “the Emperor has no clothes.” 

According to Starbucks corporate office, removing furniture has made employees and customers at the K Street location safer, excluding the recent axe incident. Trull said that Starbucks recently conducted a training at K Street that included reviewing “safety and security protocols” and offering “detailed guidance on incident reporting.” 

But Mederio argues those changes haven’t been comforting to his team. “I know a lot of our partners don’t like coming into work because they just feel so unsafe,” he said some five weeks before the axe-attack incident occurred there. 

Pierce feels the same way about the corporate-initiated precautions at the J Street location. Pierce recounts being stalked and sexually harassed by a man who would come into the café. The individual appeared obsessed with Pierce being transgender. At one point, the harasser even asked other Starbucks baristas about Pierce’s genitals. Pierce says the store’s managers provided the man with a formal written request to not come inside anymore, but it’s not a criminal trespassing prohibition or legally binding. Since then, according to Pierce and Holman, the man continues to show up at the windows and stare intensely at Pierce.  

“When I close, it’s really dark in the parking lot,” Pierce said of not having security guards. “How do I know he’s not going to come find out for himself what genitals I have?”

Starbucks’s decision to not bring in on-site security or change its surveillance tech, might lead to even more drastic consequences for its central city baristas, according to what corporate laid out in its email response for this story. Trull noted in that message that, “When mitigation efforts have not been successful in creating a safe environment for our partners, we have taken action in other instances to close stores and relocate partners to other nearby locations (as we did when we implemented similar mitigation efforts before closing our Broadway and 15th Street store in 2022).”

Forced to pick between providing part-time security guards or simply closing a café forever, Starbucks is not being ambiguous about its decision-making process.  

Starbucks employees at both Sacramento stores acknowledge there are several reasons they’re attempting to unionize in addition to safety concerns, including baristas’ hours being cut, which in many cases threatens their benefits, despite the Seattle-based company posting record-high profits in 2022, according to the Wall Street Journal and NPR. Yet safety, the Sacramentans claim, continues to be a big point of discussion among local baristas who are pro-union. Why can’t Starbucks see it needs better security, many of them ask? 

The Downtown Sacramento Partnership and City Hall both deferred questions around guidance for businesses about security to the Sacramento Police Department. Sgt. Eaton detailed that the department doesn’t have official guidelines for recommending when a business should or shouldn’t get security guards or upgrade its surveillance systems, though it does have a Crime Prevention and Environmental Design unit which will, upon request, make a general assessment around problems that are occurring. 

“They’ll make a report on how people can create crime prevention through the environment,” Eaton explained. “That could be the trimming of bushes, installing lighting in certain areas that are dark, or explaining what surveillance cameras can do to help prevent crime. It’s about explaining not only what would help in our own investigations, but also sharing what’s worked for other businesses or entities.”

The sergeant added that, regardless of whether official CPED reports have been made for either of the Starbucks in question, there have been enough incidents at both locations that his department is regularly discussing CPED-type topics with Starbucks corporate. 

The run-up to this week’s votes in Sacramento was capped by Starbucks founder and former CEO Howard Schultz being called to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in Washington about allegations the company had illegally retaliated against employees for trying to form unions. It was a C-SPAN moment many local baristas wanted to watch, as worry about retaliation could affect the local vote. 

Schultz started his testimony by defending Starbucks. “My vision for Starbucks coffee company has always been steeped in humanity, respect and shared success,” he said. “The essential operating approach at Starbucks since 1987, when we had just eleven stores, has focused on values-based decisions. We’ve always believed that if we exceed the expectations of our people, they in turn will exceed the expectations of our customers. We call our employees partners — it’s a very important point. …  According to Aon, one of the most-respected benefits and HR consultants in the country, this is their voice not ours, there’s literally no company — no company — in our competitive set of retail that offers high-value benefits than Starbucks in the United States.”

However, when the examination started, the committee chair, Sen. Bernie Sanders, asked Schultz, “Are you aware that [National Labor Relation Board] judges have ruled that Starbucks violated federal labor law over 100 times during the past 18 months, far more than any other corporation in America?” 

Schulz denied Starbucks has broken the law.

A few days after Schulz’s testimony, Alexis Rizzo, a barista who successfully unionized the first Starbucks in the nation, publicly announced that she’d been fired from her café in Buffalo, New York, for allegedly being two minutes late to work on two occasions, and four minutes late to work on another. Rizzo claims her termination was direct retaliation for opening the door to some 300 Starbucks voting to unionize.   

Pierce, Holman and Mederio all expressed concern that fear of retaliation was keeping other Starbucks employees at J Street and K Street from talking to the media — but they hoped that wouldn’t affect the overall vote this week. They learned hours later the J Street location would not be unionizing, but the K Street Cafe would be.

“Starbucks calls us ‘partners’ not employees, but they treat us like we’re expendable,” Pierce said. “They’ve done a brilliant job of branding themselves as this progressive beacon of hope for all of us plebeians who just want a job. But we’re expected to maintain a level of hospitality while literally fighting for our lives. And that’s unreasonable — and it’s not sustainable.”

After the vote to unionize the K Street Starbucks was finalized, Maizie Jensen, a representative for the baristas there, said, “Winning our union vote earned us a seat at the negotiation table for our location. Our first priority will be ensuring a safe workplace. Safety concerns sparked 7th and K’s union campaign, and we have never lost sight of it. Baristas should be able to serve coffee without fear of life-threatening violence.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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