Three workers say a Raleigh Bojangles didn’t tell them coworker tested positive for coronavirus, but store owners deny it.
“Don’t risk it for the biscuit” became the new rallying cry and warning from several employees to customers at a Raleigh Bojangles.
At noon Wednesday, three striking workers and their supporters hand-delivered official strike notices and demands to a Bojangles on Raleigh’s New Bern Avenue, where a coworker recently tested positive for COVID-19.
The workers claim they were not immediately notified, nor was the store professionally cleaned, according to a press release from NC Raise Up, the state’s branch of the international workers’ rights group Fight for $15.
Their demands: Provide 14 days of paid leave for workers to self-quarantine, professional deep cleaning of the store with proof of the cleaning shared with employees and the public, and $15/hour hazard pay for all workers at this store.
Two of the employees, Lisa Foster and Dekembe Black, are mother and son and have not worked since Aug. 8. “Obviously if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” said Black. “We’ve just been (in quarantine), making sure we’re straight health-wise.”
“Bojangles gave us shirts that say ‘Risk it for the Biscuit,’” Foster said. “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.”
The strikers claim that all employees were promised hazard pay, which they never received.
The employees also allege when rumors of a coworker testing positive for the novel coronavirus emerged on Aug. 3, Bojangles management denied them. But on Aug. 8, Foster and LaMeaka Moses saw a notification pinned to a bulletin board in the back of the store, informing employees that a coworker had in fact tested positive for COVID-19.
“I feel betrayed that (management) didn’t think much of my life to inform all employees instead of just a few,” Moses told Cardinal & Pine.
After seeing the bulletin, Moses and Foster said they walked off the job and went on strike. They were joined on strike by Black, who was scheduled to work the night shift.
Amanda Arnold, director of human resources at Tri-Arc Food Systems, Inc., the Raleigh-based owner and operator of the Bojangles franchise, says the store handled the situation properly.
Arnold wrote in an email to Cardinal & Pine that the store’s management was informed Aug. 6 that an employee at the Raleigh Bojangles had tested positive, although the employee had not worked in the store since July 30.
“While we were not required to close our restaurant in this situation, out of an abundance of caution, the restaurant was deep cleaned, sanitized, and professionally disinfected,” Arnold wrote. “Every precautionary measure was taken to ensure the well-being of team members and guests.”
Arnold added that employees identified as “close contacts,” meaning they were within 6 feet of the employee for more than 15 minutes, were contacted and asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. She said those employees will be paid during that time. She said bulletins notifying all employees were posted Aug. 7.
“To best protect our customers and employees, all Tri-Arc Bojangles locations have been closing an hour early each night for extra cleaning and we will continue to do so,” Arnold wrote.
An ‘essential’ industry under fire
Workers’ rights advocates say the Bojangles cases are emblematic of companies focusing on providing “essential” services despite concerns about employee safety and compensation during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the fast food industry.
Studies have shown fast food workers and other essential employees may face greater health risks due to being in close contact with the public. Like almost every other aspect of COVID-19, these risks are also disproportionate.
Recent surveys report 73% of Black workers have gone to work even though they believe they may be endangering their health or a family member’s. These respondents were also twice as likely as white workers to have unresolved concerns, and they were more than twice as likely to avoid raising concerns for fear of retaliation.
Workers in NC enjoy relatively few protections as “at-will” employees, meaning employers are given broad discretion over how to treat their employees or dismiss them. However, it is against the law to retaliate against employees for asking questions about health and safety, according to the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project.
Workers can file complaints with NC’s Department of Labor or with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), although both are relatively underfunded agencies, ABC11 reported this year.
Dozens of frontline workers in NC went on strike this spring over what they claimed to be unsafe working conditions, particularly in fast-food chains.
Yesterday’s demonstration was just the beginning for the workers, who say this issue is bigger than just one store. “I’m fighting for all of my coworkers at every Bojangles,” said Moses.
“Until Bojangles can prove that they can protect us as workers, I will continue to be on strike,” said Black.