Starbucks serves needed benefits

July 18, 2008, Chicago TribuneBarbara Rose

A Starbucks in a strip mall at a busy intersection in Elmhurst will close this month, part of a rolling series of closings through early next year.

I joined a handful of customers there one night, straggling in to escape the heat and sample a smoothie. The woman who served us helped open the store in 2006, and she knows the regulars by name.

She will transfer to a job at a nearby outlet, but I couldn’t help wondering what it’s like these days to work behind a Starbucks counter, knowing that your store is on a list of 600 nationwide targeted for closing, knowing that every month you could get your 30-day notice. Better to be at the front of the store-shutdown line. How likely is it that Starbucks will find jobs for everybody when it’s closing the last of stores?

Millions go to work every day knowing they could lose their jobs, but workers at companies where layoffs are pending (that includes those of us at the Chicago Tribune) live with a much sharper sense of insecurity.

Starbucks is interesting because it occupies a special niche in the employer universe as one of a handful of companies that offers good benefits to part-timers. The world’s most ubiquitous coffeehouse emerged in the late 20th Century as a de facto safety net for the long-term unemployed, a refuge for people caught between jobs and without health insurance.

The chain’s policies stem from the childhood experiences of founder Howard Schultz, who was 7 in 1961 when his father, a delivery driver, fell and broke his ankle, and then lost his job and the family’s health benefits. Schultz’s mother was pregnant. In the hard months that ensued, Schultz learned to answer the phone at their home in a Brooklyn, N.Y., housing project and tell bill collectors that his parents weren’t home.

Back then, the benefits that manufacturing unions won for workers didn’t extend to the likes of Schultz’s dad, who held a series of dead-end jobs, according to Schultz’s account in “True North,” a book about leadership by Bill George.

The last of those 1950s-era entitlements are disappearing at fallen industrial powerhouses such as General Motors, which announced last week that it would no longer offer health care to salaried retirees over 65.

In today’s service and information economy, where professionals are as likely as autoworkers to get laid off, Starbucks plays an unlikely role as a lifeline for people like William Spolec.

Spolec was 62 — not an easy time of life to look for work — when he got laid off as a banking vice president of human resources in 2003. Unemployment was near a nine-year high.

He ran through his jobless benefits and was about to lose his family’s health coverage when he began hunting what the unemployed call a “survival job.”

At a grocery store chain where he applied as a cashier, he was told that benefits kicked in after employees worked 25 hours per week.

“Then they told me upfront, you’re not going to be able to get the 25 hours because we can’t afford to pay benefits [to new hires] and stay competitive with other food stores,” he recalled. “Only people who were grandfathered got them.”

By contrast, when he applied at Starbucks in downtown Chicago, the hiring manager reassured him, “We’ll get you to your 20 hours [per week] so you can qualify.” The chain provides benefits for employees who work a minimum 240 hours in a calendar quarter.

“It meant a lot to me,” he said. “They provided me with the medical insurance that I needed desperately. They provided me with something to do, too, which helped. Even if it’s just making lattes, it got me out of the house. They were very good to me, particularly with the benefits — medical, dental, 401(k), stock purchase. It was quite valuable, really.”

He liked the culture too. “One shift we had five of us. There was a black, Asian, gay, another minority as well. One was old — that was me. I thought, ‘Talk about a rainbow coalition,’ this shift was it.”

Starbucks plays the role of rescuer in scores of similar stories. Michael Gates Gill, son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, wrote a book, “How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else.” He relates how his life turned around after the company hired him as a New York City barista when the 63-year-old ad executive was broke, divorced, diagnosed with a brain tumor and without health insurance.

The coffee chain with the iconic brand has come to mean many things: a sign of gentrification, a symbol of bourgeois indulgence and uniformity, a living room away from home, an expansion strategy run amok.

But for Spolec and many current and former employees, Starbucks is simply a decent place to work. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that when a coffeehouse chain becomes a default option for people having trouble finding jobs that provide affordable insurance, it’s time to fix our nation’s broken health-care system.

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