Starbucks Is Putting Something Very Controversial Into Some of Its Stores. Here's Why

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

It started with 10 people six months ago.

The fact that they had to do it on a public petition forum suggests employees knew it would be hard to get their bosses to do what they saw as the right thing.

The petition, now signed by almost 4,000 people, was headlined Protect Employees And Customers By Placing Needle Disposal Boxes In High-Risk Bathrooms.

Perhaps it’s an issue that many haven’t considered, but the petition was blunt about the risks:

Exposure to HIV/AIDS, Hep C, Hep B, etc. is a risk in Seattle where there is a heroin/hep c crisis. There is no vaccine for Hep C, and Starbucks refuses to comment when employees mention this risk.

Needles were being left all over bathrooms. There was a protocol. Gloves and tongs were to be used to remove needles that were discarded in places as varied as tampon disposal boxes and even diaper changing stations.

The employees said that, as well as a health risk, there was a very high financial cost to potential exposure:

It costs almost two thousand dollars just for one round of after-exposure shots, not including other tests, shots, medications, etc. Employees have to pay out-of-pocket for this before being reimbursed until Starbucks’s company insurance kicks in.

Employees claim one of the reasons Starbucks resisted putting in needle-disposal boxes was because it believed this would damage the corporate image.

Now, though, Business Insider reports that Starbucks is beginning to install some boxes.

I asked Starbucks for its view. A spokesperson told me: 

These societal issues affect us all and can sometimes place our partners in scary situations, which is why we have protocols and resources in place to ensure our partners are out of harm’s way. I can’t emphasize enough that if our partners are ever in a position where they don’t feel comfortable completing a task, they are empowered to remove themselves from the situation and alert their manager. As we always do, we are constantly evaluating our processes and listening to partner feedback of ways we can be better.

Some baristas, though, say those resources are set against the store’s overall budget, which affects staffing.

A source at Starbucks did admit to me that the chain is finally taking steps to address the baristas’ concerns: 

We are actively looking at solutions, including installing Sharps boxes in the bathrooms in select markets. These decisions are made on a store-by-store basis to support the needs of the business and the community it serves. This varies by store, design and layout, and the amount of traffic the store supports.

Which does suggest that budget matters.

Still, I talked to one Bay Area barista who told me that the needle issue isn’t limited to Seattle. Some San Francisco stores have a similar issue. The barista told me: 

It’s never happened to me, but if I saw a needle, I wouldn’t touch it. I’d call it in to have it removed.

At least Starbucks has decided to take some action to protect employees and to address the realities that America has some serious drug problems, especially with opioids.

Perhaps, in certain areas, Sharps boxes will become another standard feature of bathrooms.

Some Starbucks customers will surely, though, feel uneasy seeing Sharps boxes in bathrooms.  

Stella Densmore