Deaf Seattle baristas say Starbucks discriminated against them

SEATTLE — Starbucks often shares the news when baristas sign with customers in American Sign Language.

The coffee giant also opened its first Signing Store in Washington, D.C. last fall.

However, two Seattle-based baristas claim Starbucks discriminated against them because they are deaf.

Both have filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court alleging "disability discrimination."

Larissa Towns and Ashley Maier -- who goes by Nikki -- told KIRO 7 they initially felt valued by their first manager at a Starbucks located near the Emergency Room inside Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Maier started working there in February 2017.

Towns was hired three months later. A post on the store’s Facebook page, written by their manager in May 2017, announces it "has been a positive experience for the employees and patients at the hospital to have two partners who can use American Sign Language.”

Customers “were so thrilled when they saw us and that we actually signed with them,” Maier recently told KIRO 7.

For Maier and Towns, knowing regulars' favorites has always been a source of pride.  As proof of their ability to communicate with everyone, the two plaintiffs described to KIRO 7 -- by speaking out loud and in ASL --- a particularly difficult regular hot chocolate order: four pumps of mocha, one vanilla, two cinnamon dulce, two hazelnut, whole milk, no whip, no foam and at exactly 169 degrees.

“I actually liked coming to work,” Towns said.  “But when the new manager came in, everything just went downhill.”

While their former Starbucks manager publicly praised their ability to sign with customers, they claim a new manager discriminated against them.

Their lawsuit claims the new manager ignored "Starbucks' standard practice" to "rotate a person's role every two hours."  In the complaint, Maier and Towns claim they were required "to work the POS (Point of Sale) system for long periods of time, well over the standard two-hour rotation on that role."

“To put a deaf person in that role for over two hours,” Maier explained is “mentally exhausting, with all the lip-reading.”

Both Maier and Towns said they never had a customer complain that he or she could not communicate their order.  When they raised their concerns with store managers, they say no supervisors "ever made any changes," according to their lawsuit.

Their lawyer, Rachel Emens of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Seattle said, Maier and Towns were required to work Point of Sale longer than their hearing co-workers. “They continued to be put in roles for longer periods of time that cause fatigue, and despite making requests to various supervisors, they were never afforded the same ability to transfer those roles.”

Maier and Towns told KIRO 7, they never expected special treatment – just equal treatment.

Their complaint alleges co-workers excluded them from conversations by "walking into the backroom" or "turning their back;” and that one employee found it "awkward" to work with Maier and Towns because they "did not talk as much to their co-workers and customers."

The plaintiffs also claim their hours were cut by 25-to-50%.

And even though she was up for a promotion under her former manager -- Maier says she still has not been promoted one year later because she was told "she would need to be more talkative and create a warm and welcoming environment."

"I do as much as I can, as best as I can," Maier said, "but it's not going to be at the same standards as hearing person."
Maier still works at the Seattle Children's Starbucks.

Towns, however was terminated on July 30, 2018 --- according to the complaint, for “failure to create a warm and welcoming environment while at work.”

“I was shocked,” Towns said.  “It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”

According to the lawsuit, Towns was also terminated for "swearing in the back room" -- something she said she did once because of frustration over how she was being treated.

The lawsuit alleges "it is commonplace for employees to engage in the use of profanity on the work floor and in the back room."

“I think that would be an example of discrimination,” Towns said.  “I didn’t do anything to be treated that way.”

Maier, Towns and their attorney believe the baristas’ disability is why they've been treated differently at Starbucks -- a company that celebrates its Signing Store in DC and claims on its website to provide "employment opportunities for Deaf and hard of hearing people as part of the company's ongoing commitment to inclusion, accessibility and diversity."

“It’s important to practice what you preach,” Emens told KIRO 7. “It’s important to set an example for your managers as to the kind of conduct that should be demonstrated to employees, and what we’ve alleged in this complaint is that that’s not necessarily happening.”

Starbucks declined KIRO 7’s requests for an on-camera interview to discuss Maier and Towns’ lawsuit.

Instead, spokesperson Bailey Adkins emailed the following statement on Jan. 31:

"Wanted to circle back to share we are aware of the claims and will be prepared to present our case showing that we treated the partners (employees) appropriately. We pride ourselves on being a great place for our partners to work. We have a clearly stated anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy, and have zero tolerance for unlawful discrimination in our hiring or employment practices. Starbucks does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and has a lengthy history of leading and supporting policies that promote inclusion."  

-Bailey Adkins/Starbucks

On Feb. 12, Adkins sent a follow-up statement to KIRO 7:

"Creating a culture of warmth, inclusion and belonging are values that are core to our mission and a distinct part of our history as a company. We know that when our partners (employees) feel supported and empowered, we perform better as a company. 

"In that spirit, Starbucks has placed a special emphasis on offering employment and career advancement opportunities for the deaf and hard of hearing community. From opening our first Signing Store in the U.S. and committing to hiring deaf and hard of hearing employees, to partnering with the National Association of the Deaf to empower hearing-impaired youth to explore a variety of career options, Starbucks has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to supporting the deaf and hard of hearing community. We are also proud that Starbucks is consistently ranked a top employer and scored 100 out of 100 on the Disability Equality Index survey. 

"I’d reinforce that we have zero tolerance for any behavior that does not serve our mission to advance diversity and inclusion, and we have strict anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies in place to ensure our partners feel welcome and supported. Just last month, we published an assessment on Civil Rights, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion conducted by Covington & Burling LLP, under the leadership of the former Attorney General Eric Holder, that evaluates our ongoing efforts to promote equity, diversity and inclusion and how this supports our Mission and Values. 

"I hope that this context is included given these plaintiff’s claims raise important issues that we take very seriously at Starbucks."

Click here to sign a petition, set up by the lawyers for Towns and Maier, to show support for deaf baristas.