Working as a barista while transgender comes with its own set of unique challenges, both logistical and emotional in nature. On top of the difficult customers and irregular wages cisgender baristas face, transgender baristas also cope with frequent microaggression or outright aggression from customers, not to mention the harassment and discrimination many face on their side of the bar. While there are challenges to working in service while trans, there are also many great trans coffee leaders working to construct healthy workplaces who have excellent solutions to offer the industry for mitigating problems they’ve faced. I talked to five transgender coffee professionals who present a vision for how a better cafe can operate; some of these recommendations are very small and readily feasible, some more ambitious, but the best part is that while these policies are designed by and for trans workers, they create positive systems for all cafe workers, and cisgender employees will find them just as valuable.
Harassment Policies and Clear Procedures
All of the coffee workers I interviewed said that in order for trans workers to have equity at the cafe level, it’s absolutely crucial to have a policy that not only bans harassment from both staff and customers, but also clearly defines it and outlines procedures for reporting it. These policies need to be accessible and equally applied to everyone.
Em Halpern, former quality controller and employee trainer at Function Coffee Labs, said that when coffee businesses don’t have a clear harassment policy, it’s not only unprofessional, it’s also a liability. They added that companies need to go further than just having a nominal policy in place: “If a policy outlines no actual steps to follow or protections for the employee, the employer is free to act how they see fit, leaving room for personal biases regardless of good intentions. In the worst case scenario, employees can be made to feel like their claim is invalid and end up further victimized.” Halpern also shared a great example of a clear, comprehensive policy, the one they experienced while working at Ultimo Coffee: “Any instance of discrimination or harassment by staff member, customer, or other person related to the business of Ultimo Coffee should be reported immediately to Aaron or Elizabeth Ultimo. The report will be handled in a swift and appropriate manner and will not result in any retaliation on the employee who made the complaint.” Being clear about how to file a complaint and about the fact that filing won’t result in retaliation allows workers a clear picture of the process they will actually go through when reporting harassment.
Important also to note in the policy is that harassment isn’t just something that can occur between employees; it can also be a problem with customers. Shannon, who works for a French bakery chain and does cafe consulting work on the side, used to work for a restaurant group that had a great policy stating that any worker experiencing harassment of any kind from a customer should immediately notify a manager, who would then take over and ask the customer to leave, preventing any further contact, a detail that he said generated a very positive response.
In general, on-paper policies that are clear and specific help create equitable treatment, but beyond that, they also help companies to scale. Policies that live in managers’ heads are much harder to disseminate consistently and fairly, and all workers benefit from clear avenues for communication and procedure, especially as small companies grow larger and need more employees and managers.
Sensitivity Training and Education
Part of the difficulty of working while trans is that not everyone has the education they need to engage appropriately with trans coworkers and customers, and trans employees usually end up carrying the burden of providing that education (usually for no extra pay).
Halpern wants to see employers and employees alike receive regular high-quality LGBTQ/GNC sensitivity trainings, as well as trainings on other forms of systemic oppression. They also hope that going forward, the Barista Guild or Specialty Coffee Association can team with a reputable institution to make those types of trainings readily available and affordable. Sid Ditson, barista at Coava, added that many cities have community education organizations that offer basic trainings. Ditson also thinks that new hire training and continued staff education need to include explanations of common microaggressions that transgender workers face (eg. misgendering, sexual harassment).
Sam Penix, owner of Everyman Espresso, said that asking for employee pronouns during the interview process and introducing new workers with the correct pronouns goes a long way toward creating a less presumptuous culture. He also said that employers and workers alike need to know that asking questions about the bodies or sex lives of trans coworkers is harassment, and that while it’s okay for trans workers to talk about their own gender identity, it’s not okay for workers to talk about their coworkers being trans (a practice called outing). On a customer service level, Halpern also wants workers to receive training on how to improve customer service by not gendering customers (eg. calling them sir/ma’am, using gendered pronouns to talk about them), as a means to avoid misgendering transgender customers. Those are all examples of things employers and workers would learn during sensitivity training.
Long-term wage data reveals that while white women make 79% of what men make over the course of their lives, that percentage dips lower for non-white women, dropping as low as 54% for Latinx women. Unsurprisingly, transgender workers—especially those who are women or nonbinary—also face a daunting wage gap. According to data collected by the Williams Institute and published by the Center for American Progress, “One study found that the earnings of female transgender workers fell by nearly one-third following their gender transitions. This research strongly indicates that in addition to facing significant workplace discrimination in hiring and firing based on their gender identity, transgender women experience significant gaps in pay largely attributable to their gender.” Because of pay disparities that tend to occur whenever pay rates are determined through standard new-hire negotiations, pay and wage transparency are excellent ways to ensure fiscal equity among cafe workers.
Halpern recommends establishing transparent wage systems that detail not only why an employee starts out at a specific rate, but also exactly how they can earn raises, how often raises should happen, and what those raises should look like. Ellan Kline, Retail Trainer at Ritual Coffee Roasters (and, full disclosure, my spouse) works within a model just like that: baristas all start at the same rate, undergoing a series of coffee tests that lead to preset raises, and eventually moving into a yearly review system with both clear time-based raises and extra raises that employees can earn by going above and beyond. These on-paper wage brackets help not only trans employees, but also cisgender female employees and workers of color, who know they’re being paid equitably; the transparency has a demonstrably positive effect on morale and retention at Ritual.
Support and Empowerment
Emotional and professional support are valuable in helping trans workers thrive in coffee companies and in the larger coffee community. Mentorships programs at both a company level and industry level could go a long way toward helping transgender coffee workers find the same coffee community that cisgender coffee workers enjoy.
“Trans and gender-nonconforming folks are, like all marginalized groups, underrepresented in coffee leadership,” said Halpern, who wants to start a coalition of trans and gender-nonconforming service industry workers to mentor, empower, and advise on difficult professional situations and career-building. “Many of us carry the unique emotional burden of defending our gender and identity to customers, coworkers and employers; I want to help people to reduce that emotional burden they carry.”
“Support, empower, promote,” said Kline, talking about her responsibility as an advocate for bringing more trans people into coffee and helping them move up through the ranks if they so desire. Penix said that it’s important to prioritize hiring trans and gender-nonconforming workers as well as workers of color. “This doesn't mean I exclusively hire trans people or POC,” he said. “It means that I am aware of hurdles that those communities face and seek to remove those challenges. I make statements when I hire to make sure I have a welcoming message free from ambiguity. I am willing to volunteer my own time to training those folks and sending them along with recommendations to other cafe owners.”
Trans coffee professionals in leadership positions like Halpern, Penix, and Kline are doing foundational work to let other trans coffee workers know that they can find comradery and support in the coffee community, and have seen more trans and nonbinary workers moving into cafes since public representation has increased.
Living Wage and Healthcare
Factors that affect all workers’ ability to be healthy and safe while working and coffee, especially pay and healthcare, are critical in supporting trans workers. All five of the coffee pros I spoke to cited paying a living wage and providing healthcare if possible as major factors in trans cafe worker wellbeing.
“Most baristas in this country don’t make a reasonable living wage,” said Halpern. “Most of us don’t get healthcare coverage with our jobs, so we have to rely on government assistance or out- of-pocket insurance plans. The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 per hour; nobody can reasonably exist on this wage, nor should they have to struggle because they enjoy working in coffee.” Shannon pointed to Australia, a country where the average barista makes $20 per hour and have health insurance, as a successful and thriving model for where the US coffee industry should go over the next few years. While it’s not always possible for employers to offer affordable health insurance to workers, a lack of access to affordable care disproportionately affects trans workers, many of whom need to be able to access hormone therapy and psychological support in order to do their best work.
“I think getting rid of tipping culture by raising wages and upping prices to account for the amount people budget for tips is the biggest and easiest change to implement industry-wide,” said Kline, adding that tips encourage the idea that the customer is always right, enabling them to treat trans employees disrespectfully without repercussion. “If a customer is making up the gap between the minimum wage and a living wage, how comfortable are trans employees going to feel shutting down customer harassment?”
Providing a living wage and affordable health care within the narrow profit margins of a small coffee business isn’t always feasible; nevertheless, those are still critical success factors in trans worker support, so businesses should try to be cognizant of how that will affect their ability to support trans workers.
These strategies provide a model for cafes that want to be more supportive to transgender workers to gain traction and actualize that goal. Some of these strategies are expensive and take time to plan for, but many are low-cost or free and can even save money by reducing liability and worker turnover. While few coffee companies start out perfect, a little goes a long way, and the trans workers I talked to are excited that coffee businesses are starting to look at free and easy policy moves that lead to cultural shifts. Bringing new perspectives into leadership in the coffee community will allow for novel approaches to old problems that the industry will need to solve in order to move forward.