Starbucks will begin installing needle disposal boxes in some of its bathrooms in response to an employee petition that claimed baristas and other workers often find discarded hypodermic needles in trash cans, tampon disposal bins, and diaper changing stations.
According to the petition, which was posted on Coworker.org and has received more than 3,800 signatures so far, Starbucks employees across the country often find themselves having to dispose of hypodermic needles, which can be used to inject drugs, particularly heroin and other opioids, left in store bathrooms.
“Employees risk getting poked, and DO get poked, even when following ‘protocol’ of using gloves and tongs to dispose of used needles left in bathrooms, tampon disposal boxes, and diaper changing stations,” the petition reads. “It costs almost two thousand dollars for just one round of after-exposure shots, not including other tests, shots, medications, etc. Employees have to pay out-of-pocket for this before being reimbursed until Starbucks’s company insurance kicks in. Many baristas cannot afford that, instead resorting to loans and credit cards.”
The petition also claims that employees aren’t legally required to remove needles but often do so anyway because stores have to pay for hazmat teams from their own budgets, and called this “a veiled threat of even less staff coverage on an already short-staffed floor.”
Notably, some of the Starbucks employees who signed the petition attributed the company’s syringe problem to its “third place” policy, which lets anyone — even people who don’t buy anything — use Starbucks facilities, including its bathrooms. The company implemented the policy after staff members at a Philadelphia location called the police on two black men who were sitting in a cafe but hadn’t ordered anything. The men, who said they were waiting for a business associate, were subsequently arrested.
One employee named Jaime L., who works at a location “in a major downtown city that has always had an issue with drug use in bathrooms,” according to their comment on the petition, said the third-place policy has exacerbated the problem:
Since the new rule stemming from the April 2018 incident went into place, the number of needles in our trash can and on our floors has increased. Fortunately, no one at my location has been harmed in the years I’ve been there, but as the months pass since we became nationwide public facilities, the bathroom conditions have been getting worse and worse.
Some Starbucks locations in Seattle already have sharps boxes installed, according to Business Insider. The company reportedly began installing them after three Seattle employees told the local news station KIRO 7 that they had been injured by discarded needles.
But syringe disposal issues aren’t limited to Starbucks and may not have anything to do with the company’s third-place policy, Brett Wolfson-Stofko, a researcher with New York University’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research, told Business Insider. Wolfson-Stofko interviewed 86 business managers in New York City and found that 58 percent had encountered drug use or paraphernalia in their businesses’ bathroom.
“Even before Starbucks said anyone could use the bathroom, that was not deterring people who would inject drugs,” Wolfson-Stofko told Business Insider.
Cities across the country, including Philadelphia and Seattle, have also begun installing sharps disposal boxes in certain locations where hypodermic needles are often left on the streets. Along with safe injection sites and needle exchange programs, these disposal sites are part of a broader public health strategy that neither encourages nor vilifies drug use, but simply treats it as a reality. The idea, as Vox’s German Lopez explained, is premised on the fact that “while in an ideal world no one would use dangerous and potentially deadly drugs, many people do.” Sharps boxes are a small part of this larger approach, which is gaining traction in big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia as the opioid crisis continues.
Some harm reduction organizations have praised Starbucks’s decision to install these containers in some of its bathrooms. Julia Ritzler-Shelling, the community health initiative and harm reduction services director at the Rochester-based group Trillium Health, told local reporters that the sharps boxes would be a benefit to the community. “What it’s going to do is give the community members, the person using the drugs, the employees, some sense of security that there is an appropriate place to put that syringe if someone is using in the bathroom,” Ritzler-Shelling said.
Starbucks did not respond to Vox’s request for comment. In a statement to Business Insider, Starbucks representative Reggie Borges said the company has “protocols and resources in place to ensure our [employees] are out of harm’s way.”