ThinkProgress

America’s biggest employers leave their hourly workers out of paid family leave

Starbucks baristas Jessica Svabenik, left, who’s expecting a child, and Kristen Picciolo, right, who didn’t get any paid leave. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Niko Walker has given Starbucks seven years of his hard work, moving up the ranks from barista to shift supervisor. As a transgender man, he was drawn to a company that promises good benefits and has telegraphed an acceptance of diverse employees. The company’s health insurance has even paid for medical expenses stemming from his transition thus far.

“Starbucks became important to me at a very early stage,” he said. “They’ve always been very supportive of me and who I am… That really drew me to the company.”

But if and when Walker decides to start a family, he’s worried the acceptance of who he is and what he needs could evaporate.

If Niko were a white collar employee working in Starbucks’s corporate headquarters, he would be able to take 12 weeks of fully paid time off for the arrival of his baby. As a male retail employee who may adopt, however, he won’t be offered any paid time off at all.

Starbucks got a lot of glowing press for announcing an expansion of its paid family leave benefits for in-store employees in January, extending the time off for new birth mothers to six weeks at full pay.

But according to a new report from the advocacy organization PL+US, the company has one of the most unequal paid leave policies between corporate employees and hourly retail workers. Its white collar workers get 18 weeks of paid leave at full pay for new mothers and 12 weeks for new fathers. But for anyone who actually works in a Starbucks coffee shop, birth mothers get less than half of that, while fathers or adoptive parents get nothing at all.

According to the report, Starbucks’s more generous leave policy only applies to 3 percent of its total U.S. workforce.

Walker himself found this out through a Facebook post. “I had no idea,” he said. “That really hit me, because I want to be a father one day.”

“Starbucks has been a career for me,” he added. “I just want to know that my company would support me if I decide to go through that chapter, that part of my life.”

Walker thinks he and all of his in-store coworkers deserve to share in the fruits of their labors. “It feels like they don’t think we work hard enough,” he said. But, in his view, “As baristas and shift leads in stores, we deal with a really good amount of business that comes through Starbucks… That dedication and hard work we’re putting into those stores drives our customers back every day. If they’re benefiting from that, we should, too.”

While Starbucks may be one of the most imbalanced, it’s not much of an outlier when it comes to overall leave trends. The PL+US researchers looked at 35 companies that employ a large share of Americans, and of those, six confirmed that corporate employees are offered more paid leave than hourly or retail ones: AT&T, Darden Restaurants (owner of Olive Garden and others), McDonalds, Starbucks, Supervalu, and Yum!Brands (owner of Taco Bell and Pizza Hut).

Many hourly workers get nothing at all. Walmart has no paid leave policy for its in-store workforce but offers 12 weeks of paid leave for corporate employees. Yum! Brands offers 18 weeks to birth mothers and six weeks to fathers and adoptive parents in its offices, but nothing to those who work in its restaurants.

The report found that another four companies exclude anyone who works part-time from paid leave benefits: Amazon, Marriott, Nike, and Toys R Us. Amazon also relies on a vast network of subcontractors but doesn’t require that they be offered any minimum of leave benefits.

“Many of the companies that employ the most people have policies that provide significantly more paid family leave to corporate employees, while offering little — or nothing at all — to hourly/field/part-time workers,” the report says. “Our research shows that it is common practice to leave large proportions of the workforce at many of these companies out of the generous benefits touted in press releases.”

Another 13 companies, or about a third of those in the group, have refused to make the details of their policies public. Most simply didn’t respond, but one, Trader Joe’s, specifically responded to say it wouldn’t share the information.

The findings fit in with wider statistics on who gets paid leave and who doesn’t. Overall, while only 13 percent of Americans get paid family leave from work, those who make the least are even less likely to get the benefit. Just 5 percent of the lowest paid quarter of the workforce gets paid family leave, compared to 21 percent of the top quarter. Part-time workers are also a third less likely to get it than full-time ones.

Kristen Picciolo found out that she wasn’t included in Starbucks’s generous corporate leave policy in the middle of labor. She got pregnant not too long after starting her job at the coffee chain, but she was excited about the prospect of taking paid time off when her baby arrived.

The reality turned out to be different. “I was in labor in the hospital and got an email…saying I didn’t qualify for paid leave,” she said. She was short the requisite hours to qualify for the six weeks that retail employees are offered; she says that’s because the store often didn’t give her all of the hours she asked for. “I’m sure you can imagine that’s pretty stressful when you’re having a baby.”

She took six weeks off without any pay while her boyfriend went into overdrive, picking up every available shift at his job as a restaurant server. But even six weeks with pay wouldn’t have been enough. Once that period was up, she was still breastfeeding every two hours and trying to adjust to life with a newborn. She requested more time, but was informed that she would have to take a personal leave — something retail employees can only take every three years, also unpaid.

The good news was that she was able to take another three months off. The bad news was that the lack of pay left her and her family in a tough situation. “It was very stressful not having it paid,” she said. “It’s really hard to support a family.” To make ends meet, she sought out food pantries that offered diapers and other infant necessities.

Both Picciolo and Walker have started campaigns urging the company to expand its paid leave policy so that it covers all employees, corporate and retail alike. While Walker hasn’t yet sent his petition to Starbucks headquarters, he has been surprised by the swift and supportive response so far. One evening he went to bed after seeing that there were 2,000 signatures. “I was like, ‘Oh that’s awesome,’” he said. Then “the next day I woke up and it was at 20,000.” He’s now up to nearly 28,000.

Picciolo even went to headquarters to attend a shareholder meeting and spoke with the company’s vice president of benefits. She says she was told that the company is interesting in expanding its benefits for retail workers, but hasn’t heard from enough of them that paid leave is a priority.

“I really, really hope that they hear from enough in-store employees that they’ll start offering everybody equal leave,” she said. In a few years, it could once again apply to her: she’d like to have another child. “I’d love for my little boy to have a sibling,” she said.