In early October of 2019, a Google spreadsheet circulated through the Philadelphia coffee community. Baristas could anonymously report their wages and compare what they were making with their colleagues. Since then, the spreadsheet has become a powerful tool, making information that is often difficult to track accessible, and it has allowed baristas to advocate for higher wages. The spreadsheet, however, unexpectedly uncovered another problem: there’s not a lot of upward mobility in coffee.
On the spreadsheet, managers and shift leads made the same amount as new baristas. Some entries showed that many baristas worked for companies for years and still made the same amount as those just starting in their careers; the average wage of hourly employees hovered just above $10 an hour, regardless of their role. Over 200 baristas entered their wages into the spreadsheet, which was first reported on by the Philadelphia Inquirer and has inspired similar lists across the nation. Although the spreadsheet isn’t wholly scientific — information, like average tips, benefits, and if they receive federal aid, is self-reported — it does call into question if there’s a correlation between how much experience and knowledge a person has and their ability to move up in their careers and make more money. And in the coffee world, despite the fact that jokes about getting a “real job” run prevalent, a considerable amount of skill, technique, and practice are required just to make a beverage properly, let alone do it well.
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Service work has the potential to equalize. There aren’t a lot of jobs where almost everyone starts at the bottom, and the low barrier to entry means anyone can work their way up. Upward mobility can seem really clear in these types of roles — barista to shift lead to… — but where do these roles lead? If you’re making the same amount of money you were ten years ago, or if accepting a leadership position means you make less money because you lose tips, does the idea of upward mobility actually exist?
“I had been working in various capacities on the cafe side of things for nearly ten years when an opportunity to become a roaster came my way,” said Trevor Szewczyk, a roaster based in Philadelphia. He was working in Oakland when he started exploring positions outside of the cafe. “At the time, I was pretty ready to do something else, as it felt like I had been bumping my head on the ceiling of cafe management in the Bay Area.” He balanced two realities: a barista job that pays a lower hourly wage but collects tips at the end of the day, or a slightly higher wage without tips in a management position, which is a pretty common reality for most baristas.
After oscillating between both options, he decided to pursue a different coffee journey.
Szewczyk interviewed for an open position with a coffee company just outside of Oakland. He said the initial interview went well, and he expected to get an offer that was at least comparable to what he was making in his last position. “As I had been the shift lead for the cafe I was leaving at the time, I was making about $25 an hour — a base wage of $14 averaging $10 an hour in tips. So when the offer letter came I was a little taken aback that I was being offered $17 an hour.”
The position — an associate roaster for a local but large coffee company with multiple locations and wholesale accounts — seemed like a step up. However, Szewczyk never made close to the amount he was making as a shift lead, even though he was learning new skills. After a year and a half with the company, Szewczyk’s wage was bumped up to $18.50, but never matched what he was making at the cafe.
The promise of a career is what drives many to accept positions that, given a closer look, don’t actually deliver on what they promise: a stable life in their chosen field. And often, that means taking jobs that are underwhelming and financially not viable to escape the perceived bottom of the field.
“There have been a few instances where I have really been underwhelmed by promotion promises — the most recent was leaving my management role to go over to a different cafe where I was hired to do beverage development,” says Oodie Taliaferro, a barista working in Austin, Texas. “In that move I was also promised that I’d start at a higher rate than their starting rate…and after it was all said and done I started at the company’s minimum and my non-tipped hours in research and development were just that — full shifts with no tips and making only $10 an hour.”
Taliaferro left that job and did what a lot of baristas do after being let down by seemingly better job: they go back to being a barista. For many baristas attempting to “move up,” barista work often ends up being the best balance between responsibility and wages. Most management and behind-the-scenes jobs pay nominally more than a barista wage, and without tips, jobs with more responsibility are often not worth it. However, that means that there’s nowhere to go when you want to move further in your career.
Essentially, you’re stuck.
Mika Turberville is right in the middle of navigating that messy place — moving from a job that sounded like a step up in their career to working back on the floor.
“I initially took this job because I was working as an intermediate manager at a cafe and had been for several years with no prospects of upward mobility,” they said, even moving from Austin to New York to pursue a new opportunity within the same company. Turberville had ten years of experience, and when they landed the job, was surprised to learn that although their wages were technically higher, they didn’t cover the added cost of living in a city with higher expenses, let alone the fact that their position was technically a promotion.
“My pay as an intermediary manger in Austin was $13.50 an hour with tips, which is almost twice the minimum wage for that area…In New York, I used my savings to move for this job, they paid me $19 an hour, $4 more than the minimum for New York, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been here, but that’s not a living wage at all.”
Eventually, Turberville left, and has since returned to making drinks. “While I feel I have taken a step backwards a bit, I feel hopeful that I can continue to pursue a Q Grader certification [a coffee certification similar to a test a sommelier would have to take for wine] while working there and that they will support whatever next steps in coffee look like for me.” The Q grader certification is a three-day class followed by 17 coffee evaluation tests — the classes cost about $2,000 and people study for months, expecting to fail at least a few of the tests on their first try. Although it’s a helpful certification for roasters and green buyers to have, it’s rare that a coffee company would pay for this course for a barista.
Folks like Szewczyk and Turberville are still fighting to establish a career in coffee, but it’s common for people to walk away from the industry. “I left my last coffee job for a lot of reasons, one of which was not being paid appropriately for my work,” says Meghan-Annette Reida, a former barista working in Milwaukee. After years of being underpaid, Reida decided to leave coffee altogether. “I got a job in insurance; I’m the lowest paid staff member and I’m still paid twice what I was paid to run a coffee shop.”
On Twitter, Taliaiferro asked folks to detail their coffee journeys, charting the ups and downs of their own employment in coffee as an example. Their reason for asking echoes the experiences of a number of baristas: “Feeling like half a dozen lateral moves isn’t what I pictured for my career, but wondering if it’s more common than I think.” When your career is a series of seemingly similar jobs dressed up in titles like “manager” or “shift lead,” which are often codes for “no tips,” it can be difficult to see a clear pathway for baristas to pursue.
An opportunity to move away from barista work is tempting. Along with wage ceilings, service work is both mentally and physically exhausting, and baristas are often not making the same in tips as their other service colleagues are, so the drive to move off the floor and into roles with more responsibilities is enticing, and many baristas are led down a false pathway that often leaves them both stagnant and burnt out. Because of the way tips are ingrained into specific service settings and because coffee is often priced lower than similar food and beverage experiences, it’s much more lucrative to be a career waiter or bartender than it is a career barista.
Documents like the barista wage spreadsheet will hopefully give power to baristas to demand more from their employers. Baristas at Starbucks have already banded together to call for better wages and more predictable schedules after the company added a meditation app to its benefits package while slashing employee hours. If anything, it’s a cautionary tale to the pitfalls of trying to build a career in coffee — what should be an arrow pointing upward often ends up being a web of ups, downs, crashes, peaks, all together writing an uncertain future for many of our most vulnerable service industry members.