Essential workers shut down a Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers in West Durham Friday when they walked off the job to demand a safer workplace after reports of a fellow employee testing positive for the coronavirus.
The protest and strike, which took place September 4 at the fast-food restaurant just off U.S. 501, follows a similar event at an East Raleigh Bojangles last month, when an employee there also tested positive for the virus.
Employees at both locations have accused the restaurants of violating federal laws that protect workers’ wages under quarantine after they may have been exposed to the virus.
It was just after noon when Jamila Allen, who works at the Freddy’s on Watkins Road, led her coworkers out of the restaurant. They were joined by nearly 60 supporters, including evening-shift workers. The workers chanted and demonstrated for just over an hour, but the daylong strike prompted the business to close for the rest of the day before reopening Saturday morning.
Some of the workers and their supporters held aloft signs that read, “Hazardous Work Deserves Hazard Pay,” and “Freddy’s: Protect your workers and Unions for All.”
“This COVID case shows why workers need to be involved in the decisions Freddy’s makes about our safety—why we need a union!” Allen, an NC Raise Up and Fight for $15 leader, told the crowd through a megaphone. “This is what a union looks like. Workers talking to each other, standing up together, and having each other’s backs. We are going to keep acting like a union, while we fight for our demands and our union rights.”
The walkout was preceded by the workers delivering strike notices to the restaurant’s management team, according to a press statement by NC Raise Up/Fight for $15. The workers are demanding a hazard-pay increase of $5 an hour for all employees, or a total hourly rate of $15 per hour, whichever is higher.
They are also calling for immediate compensation for workers who missed shifts due to a COVID-19 quarantine mandate, in accordance with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which requires certain employers to provide paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. The FFCRA is effective until December 31.
It was on August 9 when Freddy’s management staff notified 12 workers that a fellow employee had tested positive for the virus, which has killed 86 people in Durham County, 210 in Wake, and 2,897 across the state. Freddy’s mandated the workers to quarantine for two weeks or until they could provide proof of negative COVID-19 test results.
The striking workers say Freddy’s did not pay them while they were quarantined, even though employees are entitled to up to 80 hours of paid sick leave under the FFCRA, “which was enacted to address their exact situation,” according to the statement.
The workers say the store was never shut down, and they doubt that a proper professional COVID cleaning ever took place.
Days before Friday’s strike, the workers delivered a petition to management that had been signed by 19 employees.
“We have been working throughout this pandemic—risking our own health and safety to keep Freddy’s open and running smoothly,” the petition reads in part. “We deserve to be compensated fairly for hazards that we face every day at work.”
In Friday’s statement, the workers said that when management failed to respond to the petition, they decided to strike. The inaction left the workers, who have been deemed essential during the pandemic, feeling disposable.
“The way that Freddy’s has handled this COVID case, they have shown they only care about money,” Precious Cole, one of the striking employees, says. “But today, we showed Freddy’s that we are united as workers. And we are powerful.”
The INDY called Freddy’s the day after the strike and protest to ask if management intended to honor the worker’s demands.
“That’s funny,” a man who identified himself as the store manager said. He also said to call the restaurant chain’s corporate office but refused to disclose the phone number.
“You can go online and get it,” he said.
The Wichita, Kansas-based restaurant chain has about 300 locations across the United States. Company officials could not be reached for immediate comment.
About two weeks before the walkout and strike at Freddy’s, workers at the Bojangles’ at 1013 New Bern Avenue in Raleigh accused the restaurant managers of mishandling a COVID-19 case at the store.
Rumors of a coworker testing positive for COVID-19 began to circulate among the Bojangles’ employees on August 3.
According to a press statement from NC Raise Up /Fight for $15, when the workers asked whether an employee had tested positive, “Bojangles’ management denied the information, assuring workers that no store employees had the virus.”
Five days later, two Bojangles’ workers, LaMeaka Moses and Lisa Foster, saw a notification pinned to a rarely read bulletin board in the back of the store, notifying employees that a coworker had in fact tested positive for COVID-19. Moses and Foster walked off the job and went on strike. They were joined on strike by Foster’s son, Dekembe Black, who was scheduled to work the night shift.
On August 19, the three striking workers and their supporters delivered official strike notices and demands to the restaurant, saying that workers were not properly notified, nor was the store professionally cleaned.
Like Freddy’s employees, Bojangles workers want to be paid for self-quarantine. In addition, they demanded that it should be made available for all workers who were potentially exposed to the virus. The workers reported that the restaurant, before posting the notice, asked three employees to quarantine and paid them. But it has refused to pay other employees who work in what is described as a small kitchen where it’s difficult to practice social distancing.
They also say the store should be professionally cleaned, with proof of the cleaning shared with employees and the public.
And, along with demands for a pay increase of $15 an hour for all workers, the striking employees say they have not received hazard pay that was promised to them by the restaurant chain.
“Bojangles’ does not have employees’ best interests at heart. For them, it’s all about a dollar,” says Moses, a long time fast-food worker and the mother of three young girls. “All workers should have been notified immediately, but there was no real communication from Bojangles’. They posted the notice several days too late and in a place where they knew most employees would never see it. They just wanted us to keep working.”
At the onset of the pandemic, Foster said, the restaurant handed out T-shirts to employees that read, “Risk it for the Biscuit.” The items are also on sale to the public.
“It may be a joke to them, but for workers like me who are risking our lives to come to work every day, it’s no joke,” says Foster, who remained on strike Saturday with Moses and her son until their demands are met. “We make Bojangles’ millions of dollars, and they didn’t even care enough to make sure our store got properly cleaned to protect us from this COVID outbreak.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.