(Bloomberg) -- Starbucks Corp. managers in several states have told baristas that its vaunted transgender-inclusive health-care benefits could go away if they unionize, employees alleged in interviews and a new complaint filed with the US labor board.

“I think the company realizes that we as trans partners feel particularly vulnerable at this time,” said Oklahoma Starbucks employee Neha Cremin. “I think that in some cases they are willing to take advantage of that.”

In a Monday filing with the National Labor Relations Board, the union Workers United accused the coffee chain of “threatening employees with loss of benefits” including “loss of gender-affirming health care for transgender employees” at Cremin’s store. The union, which has prevailed in votes at over 100 of the coffee chain’s 9,000 US corporate-run restaurants since securing an initial landmark victory in New York last December, alleges that Starbucks was trying to coerce employees not to exercise their organizing rights.

Cremin said her manager recently told her in a one-on-one meeting that she wasn’t anti-union, but, “Just know that if you unionize, when you are negotiating your benefits, you could gain, you could lose, or you could stay the same.” The manager then said, “I know specifically, you have used the trans health-care benefits.” The message, said Cremin, struck her as a “veiled threat.”

Starbucks denied wrongdoing. “We are not threatening our partners with the loss of benefits if they join a union,” spokesperson Reggie Borges said Tuesday. “We take a great deal of pride in offering industry-leading benefits and have done so for more than 50 years.”

In May, Starbucks announced that it is expanding its US health-care benefits to include travel expenses for employees accessing abortions or gender-affirming procedures that aren’t available within 100 miles of where they live.

The Seattle-based company has said the outcomes of union contract talks are unpredictable and it wants employees to be informed about the process.

Threat of Unionization

Ever since the union campaign started sweeping through the company’s stores last year, workers have said management was warning them that organizing could lead to the loss of existing benefits. With a union contract, “some things you value now might go away,” the company told employees on a website it created about the campaign.

One flyer, which the company said was posted in all of its US stores this spring, offered a list of existing benefits such as “Health care,” “Help with mental health,” and “Help with DACA,” the federal program shielding some immigrants from deportation. The flyer listed the state of each of those benefits, if workers became union members, as “UNCLEAR.”

In workplace conversations, baristas say managers have honed in on perks that they know are important to particular employees, such as the ability to transfer when they move out of state. One of those, workers say, has been gender-affirming health care for trans staff, which Starbucks adopted before many of its peers. The company has offered coverage for transition-related surgeries for a decade, and in recent years expanded its benefits to include procedures such as facial feminization or breast-reduction surgeries that were previously rejected as “cosmetic,” according to its website.

The trans-inclusive health benefits are a point of pride for the company. When Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz addressed baristas in a speech April 4, his first day back leading the company, he was introduced by an employee who cited the trans medical coverage as a reason they came to work there. In his speech that day, broadcast to US Starbucks staff, Schultz warned of “companies throughout the country being assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization.”

Some pro-union baristas who were also drawn to Starbucks by the inclusive health coverage say they’ve been disturbed to hear management suggest that organizing could cost them those benefits. A Pittsburgh employee said a pair of managers held a meeting with her in which they brought up her plans to get gender-affirming surgery, and then suggested that if she unionized that benefit might go away. The managers asked her what would happen if her co-workers didn’t care about trans health care and negotiated a new benefit package without it, according to the employee, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation.

Kansas Complaint

On June 6, labor board prosecutors issued a complaint accusing Starbucks of a series of illegal anti-union tactics at a Kansas cafe, saying that the company “threatened employees with the loss of health benefits” if they unionized. That store’s manager told a trans employee, during a one-on-one career development meeting, that he was worried they could lose their access to a gender-affirming procedure if they unionized, according to Workers United. The manager warned the employee that trans healthcare benefits might not be a priority for their co-workers, the union’s attorney, Gabe Frumkin, said.

Starbucks employees say part of their goal in organizing is to protect and improve access to the company’s transgender-inclusive health benefits. Starbucks says the benefits are available to any employees who average at least twenty hours of work per week.

At a meeting last month hosted by their district manager, staff at the Oklahoma store raised concerns about trans baristas having enough scheduled hours to be able to access health benefits, and about alleged threats to those benefits from management. The manager told them that “no one is saying that anyone’s going to take them away,” but if the workers unionize then “trans partners’ benefits are up for negotiation,” according to employees who were there. “It just seems like scare tactics,” said one of the employees, Niko Melton. “Fearmongering.”

US labor law allows employers to share negative opinions and predictions about unionization with employees, but it prohibits anti-union threats or retaliation. “There can be a very fine line between a prediction and a threat,” said Saint Louis University labor law professor and former NLRB attorney Matthew Bodie.

Since the NLRB has no legal authority to issue punitive damages for violations of the law, companies often test or even ignore the legal boundaries of what they’re allowed to tell staff, according to U.C. Berkeley labor law professor Catherine Fisk.  “They’ll spend a few million dollars litigating it, but that’s less than the millions more they presumably think they’ll have to pay if they were unionized,” Fisk said.

Cremin said workplace organizing feels particularly important to her as a trans person in Oklahoma, where state lawmakers this year passed bills requiring public school students to only use bathrooms for the gender listed on their birth certificate, banning nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates, and excluding trans women from female sports teams.

“We feel powerless on a state level,” she said. “Unionizing our store at least gives us something small to grab onto, that we can make our store a safe place.”

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