A former Starbucks Corp. assistant manager at a Redondo Beach location struggled to maintain his emotions Wednesday as he told a jury that his supervisors increased his workload after he told them he was diabetic and needed accommodations, then retaliated when he complained by firing him.
Testifying on his own behalf in trial of his Los Angeles Superior Court disability discrimination lawsuit, Jose Zepeda said he was out of work for months after his February 2015 firing and was repeatedly turned down by prospective employers after he explained why he lost his job at Starbucks.
“I think managers need to be trained better on discrimination,” Zepeda said of Starbucks, which last week was accused of disparate treatment of two black customers at one of its Philadelphia stores.
But unlike the Philadelphia incident, where a Starbucks manager allegedly called police to remove the two customers waiting there for a friend, the coffee chain fired Zepeda for a series of performance issues that included his decision not to remove a guest who overstayed her welcome.
In his opening statement, Starbucks corporate counsel Richard Lopez said Zepeda locked the doors and allowed the female customer to remain after closing time at the Redondo Beach store while he counted company proceeds in the back. Only vendors and Starbucks employees on the clock are permitted in stores after hours so as to prevent robberies, Lopez said.
The only other employee with Zepeda was a barista who said he did not know the customer, the attorney said.
“This is a case about accountability,” according to Lopez, who said Zepeda did not take responsibility for his actions and poor job performance.
But Zepeda denied any wrongdoing involving the customer, testifying that she was flirting with the barista and was trying to convince him to go out with her. Zepeda said she was only in the store for about five to seven minutes after closing time and that he stayed by the front door. He said he could not tally the day’s income while the woman was in the store because the safe could not be opened until a certain period of time passed after closing time.
Zepeda said he was hired in September 2013 and worked at Starbucks stores in Torrance and elsewhere before he began training to become an interim manager while working in Redondo Beach. He said he reported to district manager Pam Michno and to Joelean Perras, who had transferred from Las Vegas in anticipation of becoming the permanent Redondo Beach manager.
Zepeda said he told Michno during an interview in October 2014 that he had diabetes and needed occasional rest breaks and a chance to stop and eat something in order to deal with his symptoms. The interview was a dry run for another one later in which he could put forth his best case to be a manager, Zepeda said.
Michno responded by telling Zepeda she doubted he could lead a store and that he could have a nervous breakdown, Zepeda testified.
Perras later told Zepeda that Michno wanted her to “performance him out,” meaning increasing Zepeda’s workload to the point he would want to quit, the plaintiff said.
“I just felt I was being picked on and I felt the root of it was my disability,” Zepeda said.
Zepeda said the pressures began to exacerbate his diabetic symptoms. He said he called the company’s business ethics and compliance hotline in January 2015 to complain about his treatment by Michno and Perras.
“Nobody was willing to help me and I felt like all the walls in the store were closing in on me,” he said.
Zepeda said his health insurance ran out after he was fired and that he applied for government assistance so he could continue to acquire his prescriptions.
“I was humiliated,” Zepeda said.
Zepeda said he was happy in the beginning at Starbucks and considered it his home away from home.
“I had issues with a handful of people,” Zepeda said. “I reached out for help with symptoms that were being exacerbated and that help was denied.”
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