Grease trap failure pushed Ithaca Starbucks workers to strike

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ITHACA, NY (WETM) – One week after a triumphant vote to unionize, Starbucks staff at the Collegetown location arrived to work to a lack of staff, an overload of work, and a grease trap failure, that workers say, jeopardized their safety.

“We had two giant orders to put away with nobody to work, and in the middle of us doing that, our grease trap outback overflowed,” said Benjamin South, shift supervisor at the Collegetown Starbucks in Ithaca.

Workers say the grease trap overflowed. It was filled with a gunky wastewater mixture of fats, oils, and maggots, both alive and dead, that spilled over onto the floor. According to South, who was the shift supervisor that day, the store was no longer safe to work in.

“We kept calling our manager to try to get them to shut us down but he wouldn’t do it,” said South.

That morning, when South asked his coworkers if they would walk out on strike, the response was a unanimous ‘yes.’

“The fact that literally everyone was on board was really amazing,” said Nadia Vitek, a barista at the Collegetown Starbucks location in Ithaca.

Starbucks workers from other Ithaca locations, who had also voted to unionize, joined their strike which took place last Sunday. It was a display of the newly formed union flexing its muscle.

“It took a lot of courage to do that, and a lot of solidarity for everyone to agree to do that together,” said Stephanie Heslop, barista at the Meadow St. Starbucks location in Ithaca.

Baristas seemed to have gotten used to working conditions like this, and even had become desensitized to the maggots.

“There were hundreds of dead and some alive maggots like sitting on top of it…And that was there for a really long time. To the point that it didn’t even fully register with me that they were maggots,” said Vitek, with a disgusted look on her face.

In a comment to 18 News, a spokeswoman for Starbucks said the district manager and the store manager had assessed the situation and decided the leak did not pose a safety or health risk, and that the store could have remained open.

“Our safety and security protocols and policies are in place to protect partners and protect our customers and the communities we serve. We expect all partners to follow these protocols and policies to avoid any inherent risk,” said the spokeswoman.

A GoFundMe was established as a “strike fund,” to support the staff at the Collegetown store, so no one lost wages while walking out. It raised over $2,500 within the first two days of its launch.

South says the GoFundMe is still active because he expects that they will be striking again, due to other issues with management. Workers say the fund gives them leverage to take a stand.

“The strike fund helps us… even without us necessarily going on strike…it demonstrates that we do have the power to do it again,” said Heslop.

Donations to support their strike fund can still be made on their GoFundMe page.

These workers realize that their movement can have a bigger impact, and hope that their initiative inspires other low-wage workers around the country.

“Even though it might be scary to step out and do something like that [the strike] there is power in numbers…Seeing that we did not get fired over it and that we could not get punished for it, is probably a good thing for other workers,” said South.

“Not just here in Ithaca, and not just even for Starbucks [workers], but for low-wage workers in general, to see that we deserve more, and it is possible to fight back,” said Heslop.



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