Star Struck

When an employee complained of sexual harassment, Starbucks lost its tender granola inside.

Zeke The Agora Theatre Thursday, April 29
"She'll come up behind me and rub her breasts - against my back," Meghan Crawford says of her boss. - Walter  Novak
"She'll come up behind me and rub her breasts against my back," Meghan Crawford says of her boss.
Meghan Crawford seems surprised that she enjoyed her job. When she graduated from Kent State, she traveled the worn path to New York City, hoping to find stardom -- or at least a paycheck -- as an actress. It didn't work out. So she returned to Cleveland and got a job at Starbucks.

Schlepping coffee was not a role she prized. It was a weigh-station job, a chance to take stock before merging back on the freeway to something better. And as such jobs go, Starbucks was better than most: The tips were good, there was health care, and she came to cherish the customers, as they did her.

Intimacy breeds when you serve people every day, especially if you're a bright, polite, pretty young woman, and your customers are retirees taking their morning constitutional of conversation and coffee. You become a friend, a dutiful listener to tales of woe and triumph. "You know who's getting divorced, what their marital problems are, who's in AA," says Crawford. They rewarded her attentiveness with flowers, holiday cookies, Christmas presents.

There are worse things than having people treasure your company. So the weigh-station stop turned into a two-year gig.

Yet it began to curdle six months ago, when a new manager arrived at the Willoughby store. Everything about Jackie Hughes was large, says Crawford -- her physique, her mouth, her chest -- the last of which was something of an obsession. "She's always talking about her breast size, how big and voluptuous they are," says Crawford.

Hughes enjoyed holding forth on all matters sexual. She would discuss co-workers' sex lives, the size of their boyfriends' packages, whether the wife of a supervisor was putting out, whether colleagues were "doing" the customers, says Crawford. "She was constantly talking about how she needed to get laid and how she was horny all the time," adds Kelly Swank, a shift manager.

Once, when two elderly regulars gave Crawford a Valentine's gift, Hughes asked, "What did you do, give them blow jobs?"

The two men were pushing 80. "They're just nice old guys," says Crawford. "To say anything about them is gross."

But if Crawford found the manager's inelegant patter disgusting, Hughes's physical actions were downright weird.

The supervisor was fond of introducing employees to her breasts, workers say. "She'll come up behind me and rub her breasts against my back," says Crawford. "I didn't know if she was hitting on me or just bullying me and being perverted."

The same thing happened to Swank, who says that Hughes once twisted her nipples. Other times, Hughes would deliberately lean over her to "put her breasts in my face." (Hughes declined comment.)

Sexual harassment is an elusive thing. Obvious is the lecherous boss who preys on his charges like a dog taking to meat. Less obvious is the joking, the flirtation, the unfiltered speech of any workplace.

HR experts will tell you that any cussing, talk of sex, or even gracious comment on someone's appearance can qualify. This would be a fine definition -- if every job were like a nursing-home quilting circle. The better guideline: If someone objects, you'd better cool out. And Crawford objected "all the time."

She admits that the kids working the night shift enjoyed Hughes's bawdy ways. Compared to the strictures of school and home, a boss discussing blow jobs presents an exotic new world. But the older women on the day shift were not amused. Crawford puts it bluntly: "I don't like to talk about sex at work. I get embarrassed. Having a fat lady rub her breasts against me just grosses me out."

So in March, three women filed complaints, as did a male witness. One would expect Starbucks to hear them out. The company is fond of preaching "community" and even has a "vice president of social responsibility." Workers are officially known as "partners." Being the good, caring company is central to its marketing pitch.

Yet District Manager Ben Schuler wasn't interested, Crawford says. "He kept saying, 'Meghan, we have to move forward. You have to start respecting her.'"

Crawford is a slender, unimposing woman. But she has an undercarriage that's decidedly take-no-shit. So she called corporate human services -- and kept calling every day.

The company, however, seemed more intent on playing hardball. Her hours fell from full-time to 12 a week. Schuler wanted her transferred. Crawford refused. Then he called back: She was fired. The same thing happened to Swank. (Schuler did not respond to interview requests.)

The women got an attorney, who wrote a letter to Starbucks. Someone at the company apparently understood the legal land mines the firings laid. They called Crawford again. It was all a misunderstanding, she was told. Welcome back, partner.

Crawford knows of six workers who filed complaints against Hughes, but she's the only one who will speak freely. She understands her colleagues' reticence. "I was all about not rocking the boat too, because I didn't want to lose my health insurance." Yet there was an overriding principle at play: "People don't need to be treated like this. I think if she was a man, she would be in jail."

Managers were clearly displeased with the woman who wouldn't shut up. Her hours remained shrunken. Corporate HR officer Wendell Russell warned her that "if you try putting up a fight, you're not going to win," Crawford says.

Russell didn't respond to interview requests either, but he was apparently right. Though Hughes was recently transferred to Mentor, the Willoughby store hired a new employee. When Crawford introduced herself, the woman told her she'd been hired to work mornings in the coffee bar. That just happened to be Crawford's job.

She believes she'll soon be fired. In the technical sense, she's already lost. One cannot live on 12 hours a week. But at least she'll walk away with her honor intact. Starbucks will make no such claim.

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