CUP Fund working overtime to assist partners in hurricane-ravaged areas

By Bonnie Rochman/Starbucks Newsroom

On the Friday before Hurricane Harvey turned Houston’s roads into rivers, Starbucks store manager Richard Foland rushed around making arrangements to close his Uptown Park store in the upscale Galleria area until the storm passed. Are your phones charged?, he asked partners. Do you have enough water and food?

On Saturday, before the streets turned into swimming pools, it rained in the morning, then the sun came out. “I thought we got missed,” said Foland, a five-year partner. “It was like, ‘Why did we close our store?’”

He had the answer early Sunday morning, when he was jolted awake at 4 a.m. to emergency alerts — tornado and flood warnings — on his phone. Walking outside his apartment complex, he saw that the parking lot had flooded. Water creeped steadily onto the sidewalk. Within an hour, the water had reached his apartment, located inside the Inner Loop, near Texas Medical Center.

The night before, Foland, 25 (pictured above), had the foresight to move his Ford Taurus to the top level of his parking garage, wedged onto the ramp, with his fellow apartment-dwellers’ cars. With water rushing into his apartment, Foland grabbed Cooper, his 80-pound pitbull Husky, his emergency backpack stuffed with survival supplies and his laptop. He and Cooper spent the next two days in the car. At one point, Foland returned to grab some items from his apartment, wading through knee-deep water. The scene that greeted him felt surreal. “You don’t realize that your furniture floats,” he said. “My sectional couch, my recliner, my end tables — it was all floating. I felt like I was on the Titanic.”

Foland was still in his car when he reached out to the Caring Unites Partners, or CUP Fund, Starbucks partner-funded program that helps partners in need. “They were so welcoming and understood what I was going through when I hadn’t even processed what happened to me,” said Foland. Within a day, the CUP Fund had deposited $500 into Foland’s bank account, with assurances that he could request up to $500 more if he needs additional assistance.

As Partners in Disaster Zones Seek Assistance, CUP Fund Is Dwindling

The CUP Fund has helped 21,000 partners since the first grants were distributed in 1998. The fund was the brainchild of four partners who came up with the idea after wondering how to help a colleague, a single mother with a medical condition who was on the verge of being evicted from her home. Amy Carrasco, who leads the group that administers the CUP Fund, said she’s not aware of other major companies that have an employee-funded safety net for times of crisis. “It’s pretty unique,” she said.

Before Hurricane Harvey, the fund totaled $1.4 million. That’s quickly being depleted, said Carrasco. “It’s all hands on deck to process partners’ grant requests,” she said.

In the nearly three weeks since Harvey, the CUP Fund administrators have processed 1,163 grants worth $731,000 related to Harvey and Hurricane Irma, roughly equivalent to the number of grants typically processed in three months of work. In fiscal year 2016, partners submitted 3,789 applications for which the average grant totaled $827.

Partners, who can request any amount up to a maximum of $1,000, are typically asked to provide documentation of need, which the approval team vets, but that requirement is waived during natural disasters. The two-person team that processes grants has swelled to nine people to handle hurricane-related demand, who verify that partners live in the disaster area. The team responds within 24 hours during a natural disaster, quicker than the usual three- to five-day turnaround.

The main source of funding comes via voluntary payroll contributions, which amount to an average of $92,000 each month. That figure is a result of about 12,500 partners contributing an average of $3 per paycheck. (There is a separate Canadian CUP Fund and a few international country-specific funds, but they are administered separately.) In addition, profits from sales at SODO 8, the Starbucks store inside company headquarters, are funneled into the CUP Fund.

In 2015, two partners came up with the idea of “rounding up” at a spring “Hack Day,” enabling partners to round up to the nearest dollar when making purchases at a company-operated store. When partners activate their discounts at a store, a prompt pops up giving baristas the exact round-up amount, which partners are free to authorize or decline. The average round-up contribution is 42 cents. On average, round-ups contribute $57,000 a month to the fund. The program’s tagline? “Small change, big impact.”

The last big push to boost fund contributions came in 2015, when the balance reached $2 million after routine requests and those related to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy had diminished the fund. The hope is that current fundraising will push the fund over $3 million, said Lisa Smith, who handles communications for the CUP Fund.

“It’s one way we can show our concern for each other,” said Smith. “It’s a powerful demonstration of Starbucks mission and values.”

Emergency Funds Boost Partners Through All Kinds of Personal Crisis

The CUP Fund rockets into the spotlight during natural disasters, but it's operational year-round and available to help partners going through challenging times. One partner who applied survived a house fire; another asked for help with expenses after donating a kidney to a friend. The most common requests for help involve housing and utilities.

“It’s lifesaving,” said Smith. “I’ve heard stories about partners who were able to flee domestic violence and get housing because of the CUP Fund, or sometimes it’s something unexpected like a furnace breaking down in the winter and there’s not money to pay for it. It can be a safety net.”

Partners in good standing can apply for a grant once every three years. About 65 percent of requests are approved; those that are denied are often due to a partner seeking a grant too frequently or not completing the application process. Medical expenses aren’t covered, but Carrasco’s team will look for other ways to help, perhaps paying for housing or utilities for partners going through a health crisis.

When Nicole Miller (pictured above) was training as a barista in 2015, she read in the company’s employee handbook about the CUP Fund. “That’s a pretty awesome thing,” she thought. A single mother of two, Miller had just recently gotten off welfare. She had been a partner for just two weeks when her father died. Her father’s medical bills had wiped out her family’s finances, and there was no money to pay for her father’s cremation. “I broke down at work,” said Miller, 26, who works at a Starbucks in Monterey, Calif.

Her manager reminded her about the CUP Fund, but Miller doubted she’d be eligible so early in her tenure. “The CUP Fund got back to me within a day, and they had a check sent to the store the following day,” said Miller. “My manager came over to me with the check and said, ‘This is for you. Go pick up your dad.’”

Miller used the funds to pay for her father’s cremation. “It was the biggest blessing ever,” said Miller, who always rounds up to pay forward the help and support that she received as a brand-new partner. “It makes me so proud to work for a company that shows this sort of love for one another.”

As for Foland, his store reopened Sept. 9 after being closed for 14 days, having suffered no damage. In addition to Foland, three of his 20 store partners have taken advantage of the CUP Fund to help them rebuild. “The customers are so happy we’re back,” he said. “We’re taking it day by day now. It’s a balance of getting our life back together and focusing on the store and the partners.”

He plans to request an additional $500 as the enormity of what it takes to piece his life back together continues to sink in. When he returned to his apartment, he saw that the water had risen 4 feet, indicated by smears of soggy dirt that traced a smudgy outline on his walls. He has no clothes, no furniture and few possessions. A mirror on the wall is among the few items that didn’t get wet, and he was determined to salvage some “prized possessions” — collectible Starbucks mugs.

Linda Dahlstrom contributed to this report.

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