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From the great resignation to unionizing: Starbucks reflects 2022's labor journey


From labor shortages to the great resignation, the American workplace shifted enormously in 2022. And perhaps no single company embodies this as much as Starbucks. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith has this report.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: It is the middle of the morning rush at a Starbucks near Wall Street. And it is hopping. At the order pickup counter, dozens of people in suits stand around waiting for their drinks.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Randy, dark roast. Michele, dark roast with cream.

VANEK SMITH: The little team of workers is like a Swiss watch, steaming, tapping, pouring, serving up drink after drink, after drink.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: OK. Robert with the iced coffee. Suzanne, grande latte.

VANEK SMITH: I came here with labor economist Daniel Zhao. He works at Glassdoor, a labor research company.

DANIEL ZHAO: This is a well-oiled machine. It's almost like a modern-day assembly line.

VANEK SMITH: An assembly line that all but disappeared in the early part of the pandemic. But in 2022, these jobs came roaring back, at least they tried to.

ZHAO: As demand has started coming back, there hasn't been the same availability of workers.

VANEK SMITH: Zhao says 2022 was characterized by labor shortages, especially at restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, bars. They simply could not find enough workers to fill all of their jobs. And even when they did find those workers, keeping them was tough. The number of people quitting their jobs in the U.S. hit record highs over the last two years. But in these kinds of customer service jobs, quitting was double what it was for workers in other sectors.

ZHAO: Because people have opportunities to go find another job, that means they're more willing to quit their job to actually go find something that might be better for them.

VANEK SMITH: Zhao says this was a great thing for workers. But it did put companies in a tough spot because at the same time as all of this churn was happening in the job market, demand was soaring. This year, sales spiked at Starbucks. Customers were back. And they were very demanding, according to Starbucks worker Gailyn Berg.

GAILYN BERG: More customization is definitely part of it. There are people who want to get, like, a Frappuccino and then add vanilla sweet cream cold foam to the top of it. So like, I need vanilla sweet cream cold foam. I need two orders of pumpkin cream cold foam.

VANEK SMITH: The worker shortage, combined with rising demand, created a second big trend in the job market this year, rising wages. In these kinds of service jobs, wages rose about 7%. But even that was not enough to hold back the third major trend for 2022, the rise of unions. Economist Daniel Zhao points out that union filings rose by more than 50% in 2022.

ZHAO: When you have a hot job market, that gives workers more confidence and more power and more negotiating leverage to actually form these unions, or at the very least negotiate for better pay, better benefits, better working conditions.

VANEK SMITH: A year ago, the first Starbucks unionized in New York. Hundreds of Starbucks have followed suit. The labor shortage, higher pay, the rise of unions, it's all prompted companies to start investing in their own trend of 2022, robots. Krispy Kreme is bringing in machines to frost and fill its donuts. Denny's has robots delivering food to tables. Jack in the Box has robots making fries. And at Starbucks, CEO Howard Schultz has created a machine that can make a Frappuccino. It is investing almost half a billion dollars in robots that will hopefully be able to churn out complicated drinks in record time. Question is, can they accommodate those fussy customers?

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Right. Candace, sugar cookie almond milk latte. Jennifer, soy grande triple hot - I mean triple extra hot latte. Jenny, trenta no sweet cream cold brew.

VANEK SMITH: Robots or not, economist Daniel Zhao expects labor shortages, higher pay and union activity to keep on humming well into 2023.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Zachary. Zack attack. Zack the main mac. I think I've got one more.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.