Who Deserves Starbucks Tips?


If you appreciate the people who make your lattes, the lifecycle of the dollar you tip your Starbucks barista looks something like this: It goes from the locked tip box to a safe, from a safe to the bank at the end of the week, and from the bank to the baristas and shift supervisors.

But not everyone who works for Starbucks is pleased with this policy. Five years ago, New York baristas filed a class-action suit against the chain, arguing that any position above them in the hierarchy should not dip into the tip pool. At the same time, another group of Starbucks employees, the assistant managers, have filed a suit against Starbucks saying they too deserve what goes into that safe. On Tuesday, the New York Court of Appeals heard both arguments, and it’s expected to issue a decision this summer that impacts the industry across the state.

“This is not a story of workers going against workers. This is a story of workers going against Starbucks,” the baristas’ lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan tells the Voice. She’s arguing that while New York labor law would eliminate shift supervisors from partaking in tips, they’re still on hourly wages, and Starbucks should simply pay them more.

As for the assistant manager argument, lawyers on the other end have argued that assistant managers spend much of their time helping customers and are therefore entitled to tips. (For clarification, the hierarchy in stores, from lowest to high, goes baristas, shift supervisors, assistant managers, and store managers.)

“The people who have the most interaction with the customers are the baristas, and the baristas are not on salary,” points out Adam, a former New York City Starbucks barista and shift supervisor who did not want to reveal his last name. While he acknowledges that assistant managers aren’t paid very much, they do receive salaries, while shift supervisors and baristas don’t.

“[Assistant managers] get bigger Christmas bonuses, and they get performance bonuses as well. So frankly, I think it’s bullshit,” he says.

“Everyone knows that managers shouldn’t share in tip pools,” Liss-Riordan says. “The point is not whether or not they help serve–owners of restaurants, especially small restaurants, help serve.”

Starbucks has argued that shift supervisors and baristas are both entitled to tips, but that unlike assistant managers, shift supervisors don’t have real hiring power.

The law, Liss-Riordan says, broadly protects the most vulnerable workers on the food chain by saying that “agents”–including managers and supervisors–can’t dip into the tip pool.

Regardless, Adam says, stealing tips is also really easy to do.

“In my experience, I believed that another shift supervisor was stealing the tips,” he says. “Before you go to the bank, the tips are just singles and change. You don’t know how much is in there.”

Tips are also crucial for a barista to get by, he adds. “If I was working 40 hours a week, I’d get $50 bucks in tips,” Adam says. “It’s almost a day’s worth of pay.”