Starbucks Barista Margaret Hobson: Fired For Being Too Old?

Margaret Hobson fired from StarbucksIf you're trying to put yourself through school or launch your career as a puppeteer/rapper, Starbucks is an excellent side job. Unlike many other retail chains, Starbucks even offers benefits to part-timers, along with stock options, a 401(k) match and a free pound of coffee a week. But some older Starbucks "partners" say the chain isn't so benevolent. One Baltimore woman, Margaret Hobson, claims that she was actually fired because of her age.

Hobson, 65, had been running a coffee stand at a farmers market when she got a job at Starbucks in 2006, reports community news site Gazette.Net. She worked both jobs for a while, but was then told that it was a conflict of interest. She quit the coffee stand a year ago to commit herself to Starbucks, which paid her $30,000 a year and provided the health insurance that she couldn't afford on her own.

But then on Feb. 11 Hobson say she was fired and replaced by two workers in their 20s, the Maryland news website reports. The reason given: Allowing a co-worker to go home early, leaving her as the sole barista on duty. Hobson claims that it's completely normal for employees to man the shop solo, but her manager said that it violated company policies on safety and security.

Hobson has another hunch about why she was let go. She reports that her manager once came to her expressing concern by saying, "Oh Suzie, you seem to be slowing down. Is this too much for you?"

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Believing that she was illegally fired for her age, Hobson filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. Starbucks denies any foul play, telling Gazette.Net that there is "no factual basis" to Hobson's claim, and that "we strive to create a welcoming environment for our partners (employees) and customers, and have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind in our workplace."

But this isn't the first time that Starbucks has been slapped with a charge of age bias. In 2007, a 53-year-old woman from Portland, Maine, sued the retailer after she was denied a barista position at three different Starbucks shops in the state. She noted in her complaint that the manager at one branch had hired 19 baristas in the past, none of them over 30.

Starbucks tried to get the case thrown out, but the judge ruled that there was enough evidence to proceed. And in 2009, the two parties settled for an undisclosed amount.

More:Barista-Turned-Lawyer Daniel Cross Crusades Against Starbucks

An anonymous poster -- claiming to be a former shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Kansas City -- related her own experience of age discrimination on the website of the international union, the Industry Workers of the World. Under the name "Bunny," she said that her manager treated her unfairly, and once took her aside and told her that her age and experience made her intimidating. Bunny says that she was later fired.

It's difficult to piece together a pattern from these cases. After all, Starbucks has nearly 150,000 employees, and hires 140 new staff in the U.S. and Canada on any given day. The Seattle-based chain has a reputation as a company of conscience, frequently appearing on "best places to work" lists, and launching its own job creation initiative during the recession.

Many workers have found a lifeline in Starbucks, particularly younger Americans, who in the last few years have endured the cruelest job market. But at least a few older Starbucks ex-partners disagree with the company's reputation of fairness, alleging that their lifeline was not just unfairly, but illegally, cut.

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