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Trans Oklahoma Starbucks workers concerned about changes to gender-affirming care coverage

Sorin Sirbu

Following multiple successful union elections last year, Oklahoma City Starbucks workers still await contracts. Access to gender-affirming care is one of their top priorities.

Four years ago, Neha Cremin started working at the Starbucks on 36th and May in Oklahoma City for one specific reason.

“When I was a teenager who got kicked out of my house and had, like, literally no money, an older trans woman told me to go apply at Starbucks,” Cremin said.

She was able to get hormones, laser hair removal, and surgeries that would normally be considered cosmetic and not covered by insurance through Starbucks’ supplemental health care plan for transgender employees.

Developed in 2018 with the help of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the supplemental plan covered most of the cost of Cremin’s gender-affirming care.

“It was really the only way I was ever going to be able to afford any of this kind of care,” Cremin said. “I mean, I work at Starbucks, It’s not like I have thousands of dollars lying around to throw at any surgery.”

But late last year when she went to schedule a revision to a surgery that was covered by the supplemental plan, she was told it was no longer covered.

Cremin and other Starbucks workers believe this change is a result of a new Washington state law that prevents insurance companies from excluding gender-affirming care procedures by categorizing them as cosmetic.

While Starbucks, based in Seattle, describes their compliance with this new law as an expansion of gender-affirming health care coverage, Cremin said it will lead her and likely other transgender Starbucks workers to pay up to thousands more out of pocket for care.

“The supplemental plan still exists on paper, but no one can really access it. Instead, all gender-affirming care is being processed through primary insurance. Practically speaking, it's not an expansion of trans health care at all for Starbucks workers, it's the complete opposite,” Cremin said.

Cremin’s coworker, Niko Melton, said despite recent changes to the way the company’s health insurance works, Starbucks is still one of the best places for transgender workers.

“When you're trans and you live in Oklahoma, you really have really limited options to what kind of accessible, gender-affirming health care you can find. And Starbucks is really one of the very, very few jobs that offer that as well as a welcoming work environment and decent hourly pay,” Melton said. “Places to work in Oklahoma that offer all three of those things are, like, very few to none if you're a trans person.” 

But their concern about the company’s gender-affirming care coverage combined with concerns over anti-trans legislation being passed around the country and here in Oklahoma led Cremin and Melton to write an open letter to Starbucks. The letter was eventually signed by over 300 Starbucks workers nationwide, and Melton said that means many workers are feeling the same way.

“A lot of us are scared of things coming to the worst case scenario and losing health care altogether or something like that,” Melton said.

Kelley Blair, the founder of the Diversity Center of Oklahoma, which provides primary health care and other resources for gender-diverse Oklahomans, said certain gender-affirming care procedures can be difficult to access in Oklahoma.

“Many people don't realize that to go and get major physical transitioning services, they have to go to another state — bottom surgery, vaginoplasty, or things like that. I’m not aware of anyone here that provides that service,” Blair said.

Because of those difficulties, Blair said it’s important for companies to provide gender-affirming care coverage to their employees.

“When someone is feeling down and bad about their self, anyone, it reduces their productivity in the workplace. And they may end up missing work, too, more often because they are depressed, which can also affect their health,” Blair said.

And apart from recent changes being concerning, Melton said the changes were made without consulting their union.

“I really wish Starbucks themselves would step up to the plate and do the thing that we all want them to do at the end of the day and, you know, sit down and write a contract with us because like that is what really is going to benefit all of us as trans employees at Starbucks,” Melton said.

Several Oklahoma City Starbucks locations voted to unionize last year, but Starbucks has yet to join them at the bargaining table.

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Hannah France is a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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