NYC officials sue Starbucks over ‘wrongful termination’ of union-organizing employee

New York City officials are suing Starbucks over “wrongful termination” of a longtime barista in Queens “without just cause or a bona fide economic reason” less than a month after the Astoria store voted to unionize.

(Video Credit: CBS New York)

Starbucks is prepping for a fight over the suit and they aren’t backing down.

The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) is alleging the employee named Austin Locke was unjustly fired in July over efforts to unionize. The agency is suing Starbucks for violating the city’s “just cause” protections against wrongful termination under the New York City Fair Workweek Law.

Under the law, fast-food restaurants are prohibited “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 that were obtained by Fox Business.

When an employee is let go under the law or has their hours reduced by 15 percent or more, the employer has to give the worker notice of discharge within five days along with a written explanation.

Fox Business interviewed a Starbucks spokesperson who stated that the company intends to “defend against the alleged violations of the New York City Just Cause Law.”

Locke reportedly assisted in organizing a vote to unionize at the store on June 6. He went home ill that day. Two days after that he went back to work after testing negative for COVID, according to legal documents.


The employee allegedly took his temperature and signed a log book stating that he felt ill per COVID protocols. He began his shift without filling out a COVID questionnaire on a Starbucks electronic tablet because he couldn’t find one that was working.

Locke went on to assert that his Starbucks supervisor, Jonathan Olivera, ordered him to stop working while he was getting a cleaning agent. He claims that Olivera “placed his hand” on his chest to “forbid him from entering, and took the cleaning solution bucket” from him.

He then requested to file an incident report and asked to speak to district manager Kristina Freeman. Instead, the manager sent him home for the day, according to records.

On June 10, Freeman and another store manager cornered Locke to have a word with him after he ended his shift. He was asked why he didn’t complete the questionnaire. They also contended that surveillance footage showed Olivera never made physical contact with him. At that point, Locke reportedly asked to see the surveillance footage but was denied.

On July 5, the employee was given a notice of separation. It informed him 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 documents. Locke had worked at the company for six years.

DCWP Commissioner Vilda Vera Mayuga asserted via 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 said.

The DCWP is attempting to get Locke’s job back and is seeking “civil penalties, as well as restitution and back pay required under the law, which continue to accrue.”

Locke emphasized that he is not the only one this is happening to.

“Starbucks continues to wrongfully fire pro-union workers nationwide in retaliation for union organizing,” he claimed.

“DCWP stands ready to fight for the dignity and respect that all workers deserve from their employers,” Mayuga said in a statement. “To all New York City fast food workers, if you believe you have been illegally fired from your workplace, do not hesitate to contact us.”

Starbucks Workers United is leading a nationwide effort to unionize at the company. The union is demanding that “Starbucks rehire all illegally fired workers and put an end to their illegal union-busting campaign.”

Over 220 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize this past year. Starbucks is against the move and fighting it for all it’s worth. The company has gone so far as to ask labor board officials to temporarily suspend all union elections at its U.S. stores. Starbucks is citing allegations from a board employee that regional NLRB officials improperly coordinated with union organizers.

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