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By Audrey Garrett
Last Tuesday the Starbucks barista who handed me my iced coffee had the words "fed up" handwritten on her name tag. Her sarcastic label successfully protested her poor working conditions, including the understaffed drive-thru. I grabbed my coffee from her outstretched arm and made a mental note to join her in rebellion of underpaid baristas during my next shift at the local Richmond, Virginia coffee shop. I have worked as a barista there since October and will write "fed up" on my name tag until they fire me.
In that barista's eyes, I saw exhaustion, likely caused by an unexpected online order flood or the doomed shortage of almond milk behind the drink counter. I tipped her 25% on the online Starbucks app (a recently added feature). I drove away with feelings of guilt and gratitude as I enjoyed my coffee on my day off but knew it was at the cost of another overworked barista. Lamenting the fact that all Virginia baristas (including myself) are not guaranteed 15-minute breaks or meals during an 8-hour shift, I sipped my cold brew angrily and mentally prepared for my next shift behind the barista bar. I could already predict the day would be filled with mask enforcements, produce shortages, and reminders from management that our location could close before May. To give you an idea of why we are all so "fed up," I will take you through a typical day working as a barista in Central Virginia:
My shift begins at 6:30 a.m. with two baristas in the store. I lock up my bike on the No Parking sign perpendicular to our café's outdoor seating, so it will be visible from the barista bar. With dreary eyes, my coworker and I open the café’s floor-to-ceiling, wood-paneled glass doors and mechanically turn on the lights, fans, and soup warmers . In a daze, I put my helmet and coat in the mini locker behind the mop room and pray someone texts me early in the morning, so I don't have to put the black rubber mats out that we lay under the dish pit. They have never been cleaned.
Depending on the month, or the COVID-19 spikes in Virginia, there are either people in line outside our doors or online orders popping up on our Grubhub iPad. When people come in person, I make sure to compliment their mask if it is not one of the generic disposable ones. The added interaction usually scores me a tip, which I desperately need considering the minimum wage in Virginia remains stagnant at $7.25. Even with tips, I debate taking a job in D.C., figuring the $15 minimum wage to be worth the two-hour drive.
As I settle into the routine of brewing coffee and burning my fingers on steamed milk, I plead with my manager to play something else besides instrumental 80s hits. The request is normally declined or compromised with samba music instead.
Government buildings in Richmond open at 8 a.m., so by 7:30 a.m. every suit- and skirt-wearing government employee wants caffeine in their hands before their day full of meetings and conference calls. Sometimes their calls have already begun and they're on their Bluetooth as they order. I pray the ice machine is working that day, so I don't have to run to the bar nextdoor to borrow ice from the basement ice machine. Though that wouldn't be the worst thing considering they all smile at me and offer leftover fries from the night before (customer service comradery also spiked during COVID-19). If we do have ice, I take orders in-person, wiping the iPad compulsively after every customer signs their signature with their hand. I wipe down fully even if it hasn't been touched for hours.
Like clockwork, my manager is on the phone with one of our sellers, informing them of whatever shortages of fruit, turkey, or ham our location has that day. After the call, she cautiously reminds me to offer cheese and avocado to everyone who orders a breakfast sandwich to ensure we get an extra $3.75 per order. She reminds me to use a high-pitched voice and positive tone to make sure they don't decline.
After 3 hours behind the bar, my feet are tired. I scan the restaurant windows to make sure my bike is still there and hope the stream of customers slows down or time speeds up. By mid-morning, regular customers who work from home arrive, which comforts me as I know exactly which Millennial likes their coffee black and which messy bun mom needs her three bagels toasted with cream cheese on the side. With still only two employees on shift, I make espresso and egg sandwiches as fast as I can without burning my hands or the toast in the malfunctioning toaster. My manager hums to handle the stress of online orders and turns up the samba. I am always shocked people choose our location over the Starbucks down the street. They make food in half the time and even give rewards for anyone who refuses to make coffee at home.
The online orders flood in at 11 a.m. as college students start their day. I rush to the back of the kitchen to grab more non-dairy milks for my manager, which I know will be a requirement of any VCU Grubhub order. My manager reminds me to offer pastries to all customers to keep the daily revenue stable. When speaking to tourists and other in-person customers, I add the (white) lie that the pastries have just arrived to ensure they are gone by the end of my shift.
Virginia state law does not require lunch breaks for employees, so I push into the afternoon with another cup of coffee, decaf this time, so I don't jitter when I hand credit cards back to customers. The staff Purel is regularly empty, so I always ask to use my manager’s travel size bottle she keeps on the lanyard around her neck. The dining room usually fills up around 12 p.m. for the lunch rush, so I always wipe down tables, chairs, and menus or anything else I think has been touched. With only two employees working, I don't have time to clean the bathrooms or door handles. I pray everyone has been washing their hands, even if the bathroom sign only mandates it for employees. During the rush hour, there is usually one or two people who forget to put on a mask either when they enter or come up to the register to ask for more sriracha. Only one woman has ever refused to wear a mask, demanding her laminated “mask-admittance” card be taken seriously. Barring such distractions, by 12:30 p.m., I am making our produce deliverer, Maria, a secret complimentary coffee with cream and two sugars. Employee discounts were severed last fall due to coronavirus sales decline.
With only one hour left of work, I am elated to see my shift replacement come in on time. With three of us working, time flies as each of us takes responsibility for food, drinks, or online orders. We share comraderie from working together during COVID-19, remembering the weekends management “forgot” to tell us a customer had called in reporting a positive COVID-19 test or the time management called a barista's absence for being sick as "lazy." Normally, my coworker Carla takes on my shift in the afternoon. I always check in with her to see how her ankle is doing. She broke it three months ago and has to take the bus to and from work, so she needs time to take breaks from constantly standing behind the bar. I should laminate her “fed up” name tag as she was the one left to wash our weekend dishes in a Home Depot bucket after work the weekend our kitchen sinks stopped working.
It should not be a shock that some small businesses sacrifice worker safety and cleaning measurements to stay open during the pandemic. Independent coffee shops, such as the one where I work, run completely off the unpredictable revenue made from coffee, bagel, and pastry purchases. Plumbing problems, Purel shortages, and wasted pastries add expenses to our café's dwindling profit, causing management to see staying open as worth the risk of providing unsafe working conditions for employees. Money is tight, anxiety is high, but Virginia baristas are still only paid $7.25 per hour. My shift ends at 3 p.m. I clock out on the iPad and give it a final wipe. My bike is patiently waiting for me to unlock it before I rush to Starbucks to use my saved up points to get a solid snack before biking home. Again, I feel guilty for wasting another barista's time but, unlike during my morning shift, I never let myself move through my day on an empty tank.
In May 2020, it was reported that COVID-19 caused the Richmond, Virginia area to lose 70,300 jobs since the start of the pandemic. Those working in coffee shops and the food service industry are likely desperate to keep their jobs. So the next time you order a macchiato or hot chocolate, tip you barista. Their resources are stripped thin, they are tired, and they would love your support. Remember to thank them after every purchase and leave a tip in the tip jar or through your online ordering service of choice.
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