One transgender barista said his supervisors kept writing “Jessica” instead of Jay on his work schedule.
They stared at his stubble and frowned at his deepening voice. A manager even laughed when he told her to stop referring to him as “she,” said the barista, Jay Kelly, who works at a Starbucks at Orlando International Airport in Florida.
“It’s like a bullet to my heart,” he said. “They look at me like I’m disgusting or like I’m not human or a type of animal that doesn’t belong in that airport.”
Mr. Kelly, 25, is one of some 300 employees who responded to a union survey about conditions working for HMSHost, a travel food service company that has long operated Starbucks and other coffee shops in airports nationwide. His allegations and others’ — including that dozens of employees were told to speak English — were made in a report the union released amid tense negotiations with HMSHost, and as labor groups reach out to marginalized people to increase their membership.
HMSHost denied any discrimination and accused the union, UNITE HERE, of spreading false information to gain leverage at the bargaining table. “We do not discriminate against any associate based on race, ethnicity, national origin, L.G.B.T.Q. status or any other reason,” the company said in a statement. “Our fair treatment policy ensures an open and inclusive environment.”
Laura FitzRandolph, HMSHost’s chief human resources officer, said the company took complaints of discrimination seriously.
“If an issue comes to our attention, as in this case, we swiftly investigate and resolve it,” she said in a statement.
In its survey, the union said that the median pay for black baristas was less than for white baristas, based on an analysis of wage data for more than 2,000 unionized employees.
In its statement, HMSHost said the pay analysis was misleading and accused the union of using isolated complaints to undermine the company and unionize more shops. UNITE HERE has been organizing at Starbucks airport locations in Orlando, Denver and other cities.
“The union has deployed a well-known tactic of using the media to frame its false narrative to negotiate these agreements,” the company said. HMSHost declined to comment on specific allegations, employees or managers, citing privacy concerns.
Caught between the union and HMSHost is Starbucks, which does not employ the workers who wear its signature green aprons.
Adam Yalowitz, a research coordinator with UNITE HERE, said the union wanted Starbucks to pressure HMSHost to improve conditions for the employees and to emulate the more progressive policies of Starbucks, which has touted its support of gay marriage, adapted its computer system to reflect the preferred names of employees and added coverage of sex reassignment surgery to the company’s health benefits.
“Workers are publicly calling on Starbucks to fix the problems at these stores,” Mr. Yalowitz said.
A Starbucks spokesman referred questions to HMSHost.
The union’s focus on transgender issues is the latest effort by labor organizations to tap into social groups that have felt disempowered to mobilize workers, said Jonathan Cutler, a sociology professor at Wesleyan University who has written about the labor movement.
“Organized labor often lives or dies by its ability to tap into broader social movements,” he said. “In this case, you’re seeing the most public effort to organize around transgender issues.”
The union said the employee data showed that 79 percent of workers were women and 64 percent were black or Latino. Many of them are gay or transgender, according to the union.
These are key demographics for unions like UNITE HERE, which tend to represent workers in low-wage industries, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University.
“Women and people of color, those are the workers most likely to organize,” she said. Unions “have to be strategic and work with their community allies. And the L.G.B.T.Q. community, particularly the people of color in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, are often very good allies.”
UNITE HERE released the survey results in a report that featured photos and accounts by Mr. Kelly and other baristas around the country, including Martha Mendoza, a barista at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport who said her manager scolded her because she spoke English with an accent, and Connie Fong, a barista at Portland International Airport who said her supervisor chanted “build the wall” at her.
Several transgender employees asserted in the report that managers refused to use their correct pronouns, or had referred to them by their “dead names,” the names they were given at birth and no longer use.
The report also quoted a former barista in Orlando who said he believed he was fired because he tried to organize workers.
Ninety-six immigrants responded to the survey. More than a quarter of them said they were told to stop speaking foreign languages at work, according to the report.
HMSHost said the survey was based on a questionnaire that “contained deceptive and leading language.” The company noted that only 13 percent of unionized employees responded to it “despite the pressure some associates reportedly felt to complete the questionnaire.”
Union officials said they analyzed wage data for a nine-month period in 2019 and found that the median pay for black baristas was $1.85 an hour less than it was for white baristas working at Starbucks in 27 U.S. airports.
The company said the median pay figures the union reported did not account for where employees lived, since wages vary according to the cost of living around the country.
“All wage rates have been negotiated and agreed upon by the union during the collective bargaining process with HMSHost and these rates are not based on race,” the company said.
The union is pushing HMSHost to increase its hourly minimum wage to $15 and to provide benefits in line with what Starbucks offers its employees, like full tuition reimbursement.
Union officials said the survey found that many employees, who earn an average of $13.12 an hour, often had a difficult time paying their rent or paying for food. Some have had to sleep at the airport because they could not afford to take a taxi or Uber back home after a late shift, they said.
In 2018, after Starbucks employees in Philadelphia called the police on two black men who asked to use the store bathroom, Starbucks shut down its 8,000 stores for one day so employees could receive anti-bias training. HMSHost locations, as well as other Starbucks-licensed stores in supermarkets and hotels, did not offer the training at the time.
According to HMSHost, the company offers training on anti-discrimination, and harassment and nondiscrimination language has been written into collective bargaining agreements.
Lacreshia Lewis, 27, who works with Mr. Kelly in Orlando, said she and other workers regularly write in Mr. Kelly’s name for him on the schedule. She has confronted managers about their refusal to use the right pronouns.
“They say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize it,’ or try to play it off,” she said. “I think they’re purposely trying to misgender him.”