(Bloomberg) -- Starbucks Corp. is making it easier for employees to pause mobile orders in response to staffing concerns — an issue that’s contributed to repeated protests by unionized baristas.
In January, the coffee chain will roll out changes to an app on its store iPads, adding a “new feature” that shift supervisors and managers can use to halt mobile orders, according to an internal update viewed by Bloomberg News. Reasons for a halt include higher-than-expected volume, or when employee absences are “negatively impacting the Starbucks Experience,” according to the document. When a store disables mobile orders, customers on the app are informed that the option isn’t available there.
Mobile ordering has become an important part of Starbucks’ business, accounting for 27% of US sales in its most recent quarter. The app makes it easier for customers to personalize orders, which is lucrative since Starbucks charges extra for add-ons like syrups and cold foams.
Baristas say that persistent under-staffing and unrelenting mobile orders are leaving workers overwhelmed and overextended — especially on busy promotion days like the company’s annual “Red Cup Day,” when Starbucks gives out reusable cups.
The union, Workers United, has carried out work stoppages on Red Cup Day and has called on the company to shut off mobile ordering on promotion days in the future. Workers say orders coming in simultaneously from the app as well as in-person customers — and in many cases drive-thrus — have made their jobs increasingly difficult to manage.
Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull said the new functionality is unrelated to the union and was initiated months prior to the strike, referring to it as a technological enhancement rather than a policy change. He said the company hasn’t changed its policies on halting mobile orders since May, when it rolled out new guidance, and that shift supervisors still need approval from a manager before doing so.
The supervisors and managers already had the ability to pause mobile orders in response to staffing issues before the May guidance, he said, adding that managers also have the ability to adjust staffing for higher-traffic days.
Workers United said its activism succeeded in pushing the company to let workers pause mobile orders. “Strikes work,” 13-year Starbucks employee Michelle Eisen said in an emailed statement. “We’ll keep fighting until the company meets us at the bargaining table to address its staffing crisis once and for all.”
The union’s membership includes shift supervisors, who are hourly employees a step below management. Eisen said that in the past, shift supervisors have been unable to turn off mobile orders, and even store managers have usually needed approval from district managers first. A Starbucks spokesperson said district managers needed to approve the pauses only in isolated cases.
--With assistance from Daniela Sirtori-Cortina.
(Updates with Starbucks comment in final paragraph.)
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