Jamie* was less than a month into their new job at a Waffle House in Florence, South Carolina, when they were called in to work during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The storm was “devastating,” causing constant power outages, they recall. Nevertheless, Jamie and about 20 other Waffle House employees crammed into their unit, working 12-hour shifts to keep the restaurant open and running on a limited menu as the businesses around them shuttered.
“It was crazy,” said Jamie, who was on dishwashing duty for the majority of their shifts. They remember seeing lines out the door, employees crying in the backroom about how busy it was, managers driving around to round up as many workers as they could find to feed the hungry hordes. “It was really hard, but it was exciting.” It was also lucrative: According to Jamie, their Waffle House averaged around $5,000 in sales in a 12-hour period, compared to the $1,000 to $2,000 that a more typical shift would rake in.
Waffle House is known for staying open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its restaurants so rarely close, even in times of natural disasters and extreme weather, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses the diner chain’s closures as a barometer for the severity of a storm and the level of disaster relief that will be needed in the area. This informal metric, known as the “Waffle House Index,” has three levels: green (normal operations), yellow (limited menu, may be low on food supplies, may be using an electrical generator), and red (closed, aka time to panic). When Hurricane Matthew hit, Jamie’s Waffle House was on code yellow.
But for the past month and a half, as the coronavirus pandemic has brought the American economy and much of public life to a standstill, Waffle Houses across the country have gone red, with hundreds of locations closing, even as others remain open for takeout only. It’s an unprecedented situation for a chain that prides itself on weathering hurricanes, tornadoes, and snowstorms. But then again, the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented for the current age — there is no amount of labor that can cook their way through a virus, and little money to be made frying eggs for customers who do not leave their homes.
Like many other companies, Waffle House has apparently felt the financial devastation of the novel coronavirus. During the peak of the pandemic, sales plunged by 70 percent nationwide, and roughly 700 of Waffle House’s nearly 2,000 stores closed because there wasn’t enough traffic, the chain’s director of public relations, Njeri Boss, told Business Insider.
“[F]ive weeks ago, we had … the overhead for a $1.6 billion business,” Leigh Rogers Slack, Waffle House’s director of people development, wrote in a newsletter to employees on April 20. “The current business reality simply cannot support the reality of the system five weeks ago.”
The company furloughed much of its corporate staff and managers, reduced hours for all of its remaining workforce, and cut pay across the board, with senior team members taking the most significant reductions, according to internal letters and video messages sent to employees between mid-March and early April. Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer announced a 50 percent pay cut; the Rogers family, which owns the chain, said they would take no compensation.
But the deepest cuts so far have been felt by Waffle House’s restaurant employees, the servers and cooks and unit managers whose essential labor powers the entire business. Approximately 28,000 hourly Waffle House workers lost their jobs during this pandemic, Business Insider reported. In interviews with Eater, multiple employees described seeing their hours cut in the wake of mid-March shelter-in-place orders: Jamie, now an assistant manager, went from 45 to 50 hours to around 20 to 22; Kayla*, a longtime server at a Waffle House in Florence, went from 40 hours to about 14.
The more stores that closed down due to low sales, the fewer available shifts there were for all the Waffle House workers in the area, and fewer workers were assigned to each shift. “They made us work one server a shift when there used to be at least two or three waitresses on the floor,” Jessica McQuaig, a server at a Waffle House in Durham, North Carolina, told Eater in early April. Having just one server on the floor was the only way to make any tips, but it made it harder to get any work at all, she explained. “We’re fighting one server, one shift.”
But even with just one server per shift, those servers have been taking home much less in tips, between a lack of customers and the discontinuation of dine-in service. Liv*, an employee in Auburn, Alabama, saw her Waffle House go from sales of approximately $1,500 to $2,000 per shift to about $100 before the restaurant closed; as for tips, she was earning around $5 to $6 per shift, compared to the $41 she had gotten on her first day of work in early March. Her hourly wage, meanwhile, remained $2.13.
Servers weren’t the only ones struggling with lower pay. Grill operators’ hourly rate was reduced by at least $1. Jamie, as an assistant manager, saw their pay reduced by about $2 to $3 an hour; before the pandemic, their hourly wage was around $15, including a $13.40 base rate and a bonus for ensuring that all end-of-shift duties were completed. Unit managers also received salary reductions, according to Jamie; they said their manager’s pay was practically halved, and that managers were “still expected to work almost every day.”
Employees said that shifts — often down to just one or two people — grew more labor intensive, too. Their stores had already prided themselves on cleanliness; now, in addition to the cleaning procedures already in place, workers had to sanitize surfaces every hour, in between their regular duties cooking and packing up food and dealing with customers. It was effectively more work for less pay, said Kayla, the server in Florence.
On top of that, multiple employees said that any bonuses, vacation checks — a sum of money, calculated according to hours multiplied by minimum wage, paid to employees who accrue a certain number of hours per week — and paid maternity leave were no longer being offered due to the pandemic. “I was really looking forward to it,” said Kayla, who was 38 weeks pregnant with her second child when she said the company told her it was no longer paying for maternity leave. “They wouldn’t work with me on my hours, the extra work work for less pay, and now no paid maternity leave. I’ve taken a drastic loss since all of this started,” she said. (She has since given birth to her baby.)
Waffle House did not respond to Eater’s multiple requests for comment throughout the course of reporting this story.
The chain’s hourly workers also don’t have paid sick leave. “When you’re out, you’re out. If you don’t work, you don’t make any money,” said Sara Fearrington, a member of the workers’ rights movement Fight for $15 and a server at a Waffle House in Durham. After an employee at a Waffle House in Canton, Georgia, tested positive for the coronavirus in early March, the employee and 12 coworkers who had worked at the restaurant with him received paid leave while they self-quarantined at home, but as the New York Times reported on March 14, “the company would not commit to offering similar benefits to other workers affected by the coronavirus.”
In a March 23 internal announcement reviewed by Eater, the company neither committed to offering nor ruled out the possibility of paid leave like the kind granted to the workers in Canton, but wrote that “business conditions have significantly declined since that time.” The bulk of the memo introduced a policy in which managers and hourly workers who have been diagnosed with the flu or COVID-19, or who have been ordered by a doctor or health department to quarantine (with official documentation in either case), “may be eligible to receive some paid leave benefits”; anyone else, including those at risk of exposure to COVID-19, “may request an unpaid personal leave of absence.” CEO Ehmer encouraged employees again to take a voluntary unpaid leave of absence in a video sent to employees on March 24, saying: “[I]f any of you would like to voluntarily take unpaid leave at this time, that would be okay. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough revenue at this time to pay you for not working.”
To Fearrington, who has worked for Waffle House since 2016, measures like this — unpaid leave, reduced pay, cut hours — are a “disgusting” way to treat the chain’s essential frontline workers. “In the process of doing that, they are slicing the people that are keeping this open down to the dirt,” she said. “I understand you’re trying to run a business, but we’re the ones running it for you. We’re down there making this money for your family.”
The idea of “family” is key to Waffle House’s image, both internally and externally. The company is still owned by the family of cofounder Joe Rogers Sr. The first song released by Waffle Records, the company’s music label, is called “Waffle House Family” (1984). There are constantly news stories about families spending holidays and taking Christmas photos at Waffle House, wholesome tales of Americana and togetherness. Management refers to their workers as a family — “As a Waffle House family, we are all in this together,” Ehmer wrote in the email notifying unit managers of grill operator pay cuts.
But to some hourly employees, that core concept of family has rung hollow this past month and a half in particular, as they have been forced to shoulder the particularly painful, conflicting burdens of having to risk their health to earn a living, while not getting enough hours or pay to even do so.
“I have devoted a lot of my time and everything to this company,” said Kayla, who has been with Waffle House for six years. She has worked through Thanksgivings and Christmases (considered “blackout days,” with employees allegedly unable to call out of scheduled shifts without facing termination) and natural disasters (which are typically all hands on deck, with employees describing facing a lot of pressure to help out their coworkers), risking her life in extreme weather and giving up time with her family over the holidays so she can feed other people’s families at Waffle House. “I’m very disappointed … I really feel like less of a person,” she said.
Do healthy, functioning families demand so much sacrifice of each other? In Jamie’s experience, thinking back on their shifts during Hurricane Matthew, there were times that it really did feel like their coworkers were family, united in solidarity, wiping each other’s tears of frustration, telling each other, “It’s gonna be okay, we’re gonna do this.” But the other side of the coin was less ideal: managers, their work family, relentlessly driving to pick up employees and bring them to work even as storms raged and nobody wanted to go in. “It’s kind of a forced thing,” they said. “I’ve worked every single natural disaster because they’ve guilted me into it. And there’s no extra pay.”
And then there’s actual family — the parents, spouses, and children with whom employees have given up their holidays or left for work during natural disasters. Fearrington described her own family: a husband with underlying illnesses, six kids, three of them still children and at home. Knowing that she could carry the coronavirus back home with her, Fearrington said she treats her home “like a hospital” whenever she returns from work. “God forbid if something happens to one of us, it’d break the foundation of a family. It’s not fair to have to sacrifice that; it’s not fair to make that decision,” she said.
“Don’t sit there and tell me you have a family core concept, and the first thing you do is don’t take care of the family,” Fearrington continued. “It’s their turn to step up to the Christmas plate and feed the family. We’ve done it, you do it. Take care of your people the way they take care of you.”
Of course, Waffle House is far from the only company with which that workers have taken issue during this pandemic. Fearrington knows this: “I’m not trying to say anybody’s the worst person in the world … This is not just Waffle House. This is every company out there.”
But this is a rare moment when the essential workers whose labor is often taken for granted or treated as invisible — the grocery store cashiers, delivery people, sanitation employees, transportation workers, childcare providers — find themselves in the public spotlight, simultaneously heralded as heroes and condemned to suffer as victims of a system without universal hazard pay, health care, rent freeze, or other measures to make putting one’s life on the line anything but a coerced choice of desperation. That’s what employees like Fearrington wanted to make clear: “We’re working on nothing. The government is failing us, the jobs are failing us. People are trying to do the right thing and stay home. Really, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
By now, some Waffle House employees reported seeing their hours gradually start to come back, as their workforce thins due to colleagues filing for unemployment or taking voluntary unpaid leave, and as more customers venture out for meals. Liv, whose unit is still closed, has found shifts at another Waffle House in Auburn. Jamie, after a brief leave of absence, said that in their area, “so many people were let go that [they] could come back and get decent hours” similar to the number of hours they had been working pre-pandemic.
Waffle House has also been courting a return to some semblance of “normalcy” in states like Georgia and Tennessee, which have relaxed restrictions on businesses in an attempt to reopen the economy — an effort that the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull calls “a morbid experiment in just how far states can push their people.” Georgia’s plan to reopen was designed by a committee that includes Joe Rogers III, Waffle House’s executive vice president, Bloomberg reports. (CEO Ehmer, who is part of President Donald Trump’s economic revival group for the food and beverage industry, did not consult with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp ahead of the state’s April 20 announcement to reopen, director of public relations Boss told the Atlanta Business Chronicle.)
Approximately 330 Waffle Houses in Georgia and 70 in Tennessee added limited dine-in service on April 27, per Bloomberg. Those restaurants have halved their seating capacities and implemented safety measures like requiring workers to wear face masks and wash their hands frequently; screening employees before every shift; using tape to mark out social distances on the floor; using disposable menus, QR codes for digital menus, or sanitizing menus after each use; and using rolled silverware or single-use plastic utensils.
But some workers still expressed apprehension about the thought of restarting dine-in service. “I don’t think it is safe enough as of now. As a matter of fact, I think we should require masks to enter the restaurant,” said Liv. Jamie, who recently lost two family members to COVID-19, expressed similar concerns about the May 12 reopening of dine-in service in South Carolina: “I’m really nervous about it. I think it’s way too soon. I’ve heard things about a second resurgence if you’ve opened up too early.”
In internal messaging to employees, Ehmer has been effusive with praise for the workers who have suffered reduced hours, pay cuts, and exposure risks while keeping the business running from the ground up. “You all have been such a positive force through this crisis, and I appreciate each and every one of you for your incredible strength, kindness, and loyalty to the company and to each other. Thank you for everything you do for the yellow sign,” he said in an April 26 video sent across the company.
Waffle House’s philosophy, as attributed to a quote by cofounder Joe Rogers Sr., is: “We are not in the food business… We are in the People business.” That tracks, according to Fearrington: “We see people get engaged. We’ve seen people come right after a funeral. We have regulars; we are part of their everyday lives. We matter in these people’s lives.”
But the company’s own people are apparently a different matter. Some described feeling so betrayed by a company they have dedicated years to that their viewpoint of their employer has irrevocably changed. “To be honest, the way that I’ve been treated during all of this, I don’t even think I want to go back,” said Kayla in April. A month later, in May, she resigned, fulfilling a prediction she had made about Waffle House early on in the pandemic: “I really feel like they’re gonna lose a lot of people after all this is said and done.”
*Some names have been changed or withheld upon sources’ request to protect their identities, due to concerns over professional repercussions.