Starbucks Is Under Scrutiny Over Removal of Pride Decorations

A union representing hundreds of Starbucks stores said this week that workers in 21 states were told by their managers not to decorate for Pride Month, the annual L.G.B.T.Q. celebration, a claim that the company said represented “outlier” decisions by local leaders that did not reflect corporate policy.

But even in New York City neighborhoods that are almost synonymous with Pride, the traditional rainbow displays were more muted — if visible at all — than in years past. In Manhattan, no Pride decorations could be seen at several Starbucks stores in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, including the one just a block from the Stonewall Inn, a landmark of gay culture and history. One flag was spotted uptown at a store in Hell’s Kitchen.

Starbucks workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Virginia, among other states, said in interviews arranged through their union that store and district managers have been asked to either take down existing decorations, such as a flag or streamers, or told that they would not be allowed to decorate stores for Pride Month, unlike in previous years.

The reasons given have varied, the workers said.

One worker was told there were not enough paid hours available for the work. Another was told that décor choices needed to be standardized across regions. One partner, as Starbucks refers to employees, was told by a manager that hanging a rainbow flag might make customers uncomfortable. Others said they were told that if they hung a Pride flag the store could be asked to show equal representation for others, including the Proud Boys, the far-right hate group. Some managers also cited safety concerns.

Starbucks Workers United, which is working to unionize stores across the United States, criticized the company for failing to show support for L.G.B.T.Q. workers at a time when conservative politicians are promoting legislation that targets the community. The union and its members accused the company of making employees feel uncomfortable in their workplace as an intimidation tactic during contract negotiations.

After the union criticized Starbucks on Tuesday, the company sent a note to North American corporate and retail leaders that said there was no ban on Pride decorations in stores. But several managers interviewed by The New York Times said they had not received that communication.

“When I see a large pride flag in the window I know it’s a welcoming place,” said Ian Miller, who has worked at a Starbucks in Olney, Md., for four years and is transgender. “I do not understand why all of the sudden they’re raising hell about it in the middle of June.”

In past years, Mr. Miller has been encouraged to decorate his store for Pride. This year his manager suggested that hanging a Pride flag could mean the store would have to display a Confederate flag if asked.

Andrew Trull, a Starbucks spokesman, said in an interview on Wednesday that the examples described by Starbucks Workers United were the “outlier versus the norm.”

Mr. Trull said that local store leaders have the discretion to decide how a store looks, in keeping with company policies, including a safety rule that prohibits hanging things in windows in a way that would block workers behind the counter from being able to see outside. The stores also sometimes face restrictions in their leases, he said.

Mr. Trull said Starbucks had not received any credible threats against its L.G.B.T.Q. staff members or stores.

In the past, Starbucks has provided some Pride pins and flair for employees to wear, Mr. Trull said, but it has not been consistent. No pins were distributed this year. Pride-themed cups and tumblers are available at stores where merchandise is sold, he said.

“You could still walk into a vast majority of Starbucks stores across the country and find our partners celebrating the L.G.B.T.Q. community in a variety of ways,” Mr. Trull said. “Putting up Pride flags in our stores is just one of many ways that Starbucks supports and stands behind the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”

Mr. Trull, who is gay, said that he had felt “seen and valued” as an employee.

“I think boiling down the L.G.B.T.Q. support that Starbucks offers to the declarations that are placed in its store is a little reductive,” he added.

But a very different experience seemed to be playing out for some Starbucks workers across the country.

Ray Schmidt, 32, said that about six to eight weeks ago, his store manager in Strongsville, Ohio, told workers to take down a Pride flag that had been hanging on a wall for at least a year because “it was not inclusive for everyone.”

Mr. Schmidt, a shift supervisor who is helping to organize a union at the store, said that since then “you wouldn’t even know that it’s Pride month going into Starbucks, which is wild for our store, where probably 80 to 90 percent of the people that work there are L.G.B.T.Q.”

The scrutiny of Pride decorations at Starbucks stores follows similar controversies at some of the country’s most prominent companies. The beer brand Bud Light has for months been dealing with the fallout of a social media promotion involving a transgender influencer. One of the country’s largest retailers, Target, said it moved its Pride displays in some stores after workers received threats.

The backlash to inclusive marketing comes as a flood of legislation is attempting to roll back L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

Starbucks emphasized that it has supported the community for decades with workplace policies, donations and Supreme Court briefs that backed same-sex marriage and civil rights for L.G.B.T.Q. workers. In 2022, Starbucks received a top rating in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which assesses L.G.B.T.Q. equity at companies based on their benefits, policies and culture.

The company’s inclusive policy is one of the reasons many people seek work there.

“This is the first place of work where I am surrounded by the queer community,” said Meghin Martin, who has worked for Starbucks for nearly two years and was told they could not hang a Pride flag at a cafe in Richmond, Va.

Workers displayed a Pride flag, rainbow-colored paper chains and rainbow lights inside a Starbucks in Madison, Wis., for about a month. But on Sunday, a district manager visited “to make sure everything was up to standard,” said Matt Cartwright, a shift supervisor at the store.

The flag and other décor were removed.

“How is it fair to our trans or queer partners to say, ‘Your flag — a way of showing that we respect and acknowledge you — might be offensive to someone who wants to buy coffee’?” Mr. Cartwright said.

Jordyn Holman contributed reporting.

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