- Starbucks is installing needle-disposal boxes in bathrooms at certain locations, following workers' reports of finding syringes, drugs, and blood, as well as concerns about dangerous needle pokes.
- The decision sparked backlash from those who felt that the boxes could encourage drug use.
- However, Starbucks ultimately is making the right decision to protect workers and help customers including those who may need to dispose of syringes for reasons other than illegal drug use.
Starbucks is making a controversial decision in an attempt to address the opioid epidemic and make coffee shops safer for workers.
On Wednesday, Business Insider reported that Starbucks is installing boxes for the safe disposal of syringes in the bathrooms of certain locations, after workers expressed concerns about discarded syringes and dangerous needle pokes.
The decision immediately sparked backlash. Many people on social media asked whether the boxes would encourage more people to use drugs in the bathrooms. Others said that the rise of drug use in the bathroom could be tied to Starbucks' open-door policy, which the chain rolled out earlier this year. Some people questioned whether people injecting drugs would even use the boxes.
Despite the criticism, Starbucks' decision helps protect both customers and the chain's employees. Here's why.
Workers have been asking for change
As of Wednesday, when Business Insider first reported about the sharps boxes, more than 3,700 people had signed a petition on Coworker.org, calling for Starbucks to place needle-disposal boxes in high-risk bathrooms.
"My coworkers and I had all experienced needles left behind in the bathroom, store, and even in our drive-thru," said one person who signed the petition after working at a Starbucks location in Lynnwood, Washington, for three years.
"My primary fear when I worked there would be taking out the bathroom garbages," the former employee, who quit in 2018, told Business Insider. "I was terrified that if I went to take the bag out, I would get poked by a needle I didn't know was there."
On social media, workers shared similar experiences in which a lack of sharps boxes contributed to a dangerous work environment.
Store workers are often the most in-touch with what needs to change at massive restaurant-industry giants. In this case, many baristas were calling for Starbucks to install sharps boxes.
For Starbucks to ignore workers' demands would be to ignore a massive problem that could endanger employees. Employees said what needed to be done, and the company listened.
It isn't just for people injecting illegal drugs
While the opioid epidemic has certainly contributed to the rise of improperly disposed-of needles, some of the people celebrating the change are those who inject drugs for medical reasons.
Diabetics often have to carry used syringes, which are used to inject insulin, and lancets, which test their blood glucose, around until they return home or find a place to properly dispose of the sharps.
A lack of sharps boxes hasn't stopped people from doing drugs in Starbucks' bathrooms
Concerns about installing sharps boxes ignore an actual, existing problem: People already are using drugs in the bathrooms and not disposing of needles in a safe manner.
In a study led by Brett Wolfson-Stofko for New York University's Center for Drug Use and HIV Research, 58% of the 86 New York City business managers surveyed said they had encountered drug use in their businesses' bathrooms. Another Center for Drug Use and HIV Research study of 15 service-industry workers found that a significant majority had encountered drug use, syringes, or both in bathrooms while on the job.
According to Wolfson-Stofko, there has been minimal research into how Starbucks' policy to allow people to use bathrooms without paying for food or drinks may have impacted safety. More generally, he said that most bathroom policies such as keeping doors locked or providing unlock codes on receipts simply give workers an "illusion of control."
"Even before Starbucks said anyone could use the bathroom, that was not deterring people who would inject drugs," Wolfson-Stofko said.
Starbucks could have chosen to ignore workers' demands and try to avoid controversy. Instead, the coffee giant has a chance to force other chains to follow in its footsteps and make the restaurant industry safer for workers across America.
Are you a service-industry worker who wants to share your perspective on sharps boxes and bathroom clean up? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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