After a second strike in two months by Durham employees, Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers has announced that the owners of a Durham store have “revisited their restaurant policies.”

Jill Tinsley, public relations manager with the Wichita, Kansas-based restaurant chain, told the INDY on Monday that the store on Watkins Road in Durham will now pay for up to 10 days of quarantine for any employee who tests positive, meeting one of the striking workers’ key demands.

In a meeting with workers at the Watkins Road store last Friday, store officials initially agreed to pay for employee COVID tests as well. Tinsley says the new policy of paid sick leave is “in recognition of the financial impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on employees and their families.”

The workers count the concessions as a success, but they don’t think it’s cause for celebration.

Jamila Allen, a leader of NC Raise Up and Fight for $15, was among the Freddy’s employees who had been on strike. Allen said she and her fellow workers told the restaurant owners they will continue to organize, and will strike again if necessary. 

“Freddy’s saw our power as workers and gave in to some of our demands, but we still have not gotten hazard pay, or fair pay period,” she told the INDY.

Ieisha Franceis, another Durham Freddy’s employee, agreed.

“After this strike, I think Freddy’s knows they can’t get away with endangering us again,” Franceis says.  “We’re back at work, but it doesn’t mean our fight is over. We’re still determined to get our hazard pay, and we will keep speaking up as a united front.”

The striking workers account for a little more than half of the workforce at the store off U.S. 15-501, which reportedly employs 23 crew members and three managers. The striking workers say two of the managers at Watkins Road tested positive for the virus.

The strike that ended on Monday was the second by local Freddy’s employees in as many months. 

During last month’s one-day protest on September 4, nearly 60 supporters joined the striking workers, including evening-shift workers. 

The current strike began on October 15 with five workers and grew to 12 over the next two days. Unlike the day-long strike, the workers said they were striking indefinitely. They described it as a “safety strike” and said they would remain out of work until they thought it was safe to return.

Their plight is emblematic of long-time low-wage workers who are considered essential while laboring through the pandemic for corporate giants that never closed their doors, such as Walmart, McDonald’s, and Food Lion. Although they put their health and the wellbeing of their families at risk by showing up to work, they are not sharing in Durham’s prosperity.

Before the strike ended, it caught the attention of Jillian Johnson, Durham’s mayor pro tem, who was rankled by the mammoth corporations’ apparent mistreatment of low-wage workers.

In a statement last week, Johnson said she was appalled that any employer would try to hide a COVID outbreak from its workers or put the continued operation of their business ahead of workers’ safety and lives.

“Food-service workers in Durham and across the country put themselves in harm’s way each day to provide essential services to our community,” Johnson said. “The least their employers can do in return is be transparent and honest about any potential COVID-19 exposures. Workers have the right to know this critical health information so they can keep themselves and their families safe.”

Allen says many of her coworkers did not find out about the latest outbreak until October 16, two days after the general manager arrived at work sick.

Workers who attended the Friday meeting were told the general manager had been fired. 

Tinsley said the chain was prohibited by law from providing health or personal information about their employees. But Freddy’s workers think the general manager was fired for showing up at work sick and not informing management he may have contracted COVID-19.

Franceis, who works at the Freddy’s on Watkins Road, told the INDY she arrived at work on October 14 for her early-morning shift and the doors were still locked because the general manager had not arrived. Instead, he called her and told her he had spent the night at a hospital emergency room, where he was tested for COVID-19, Franceis said.

When the supervisor finally arrived at work, “He staggered out of the car and went straight to the bathroom” she says. “I asked him if he had thrown up and he said, ‘Naw,’ and went in his office,” Franceis says.

“I told my team members that [he] showed up half-dead,” says Franceis, who later learned along with her coworkers that the general manager and a crew member at the Freddy’s on Roxboro Road had also tested positive for the virus.

The frontline workers said they are heartened by their incremental success with the new policy, but it does not address a long-hoped-for increase in hourly wages or the risks they confront while serving members of the public each day during a deadly pandemic.

“We need hazard pay,” Allen says. “A lot of customers come into the store without masks. We have a sign, but they don’t read it, or they disregard it. Some managers serve the customers who aren’t wearing masks.”

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