Restaurant employees have a lot at risk this election season. Major issues like healthcare, the economy, immigration, minimum wage, the environment, and the national response to COVID-19, among many others, directly impact the restaurant industry. Recognizing this, some businesses all over the country — from the political center of D.C. to battleground states like Georgia — are finally giving workers time off to exercise their civic responsibilities.
Heading into November, with a number of challenges to casting a ballot — health concerns over COVID-19, misinformation from the sitting president, active voter suppression — many national chains and regional restaurant groups are stepping up to help employees vote. While some restaurants offered benefits around voting for the first time in 2018, this year’s widespread protests against police brutality and broader conversation about civil rights has spurred more employers to honor Election Day as a work holiday. While a few large companies like Ben & Jerry’s have been politically active for decades, the industry’s other juggernauts have only just begun to catch up in the last four years.
In perhaps the biggest show of civic responsibility, D.C.-based pizza chain &pizza is giving employees paid time off and shutting down all locations on Election Day. Sweetgreen is offering three hours of paid time off on Election Day or for early voting, and has set up a registration web portal for employees. Starbucks is encouraging employees to volunteer as poll workers and offering $75 Lyft credits for rides to and from polling stations. Colorado-based Noodles & Co is offering an hour of paid time off, and mediterranean fast-casual restaurant Cava is providing two hours. Yum! Brands (owner of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut) is giving time off to workers at company-owned locations and corporate employees — though considering the company is 98 percent franchised and whittled down its direct employees from 90,000 to 34,000 people between 2016 and 2019, that may not affect too many of the 1.5 million global “franchise associates.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Independent. I just think of the possibilities if everyone in our industry actually went out and voted,” says Dana Query, co-owner of Colorado-based Big Red F restaurant group and one of the minds behind the Restaurants Rally the Vote initiative, which circulated a voter-support pledge among restaurants in Colorado and beyond. According to RRTV, the restaurant industry employs 11 million workers (down from 15.6 million before COVID-19), making it the second-largest employer behind the federal government. That’s a lot of voting power.
Some chains — as well as Tyson, PepsiCo, and Pernod Ricard — have also added their names to Time to Vote, a coalition launched by Patagonia in 2018 that’s committing to providing time off for voting. Matt Shook, founder and owner of Texas-based chain JuiceLand, joined the group this year, and will be closing all locations early on Election Day. “I wanted to prove to employees, in the one way I could, voting to me is more important than being open for business. People just need a little nudge,” he says.
Shook says he was inspired by retailers like Patagonia, but also acknowledges that restaurants are fundamentally different from the other companies on Time to Vote. “You can buy REI and Patagonia online. You cannot buy from restaurants online when they’re closed,” he says. That’s one reason white-collar workers from large companies have historically been over-represented in elections compared to service workers. Even moving Election Day to a weekend to match many other developed nations, a common suggestion for fixing our broken election system, wouldn’t turn out food service employees who often work weekends.
“It’s harder for food service to close down, especially in a year when they’ve had record losses,” Shook adds. Due to the financial impact of COVID-19, JuiceLand is not able to afford paying workers paid time off for the half day of missed work on Election Day. That sort of limitation puts workers in a tight spot. “If they had to choose between maybe taking a day off unpaid, even if they could, and working a shift to make money to put food on the table, they would probably choose the latter,” says Query.
If an employer can help workers navigate alternatives like mail-in voting and early voting, the choice to vote no longer comes at a financial cost. Yet, those options can be complicated depending on where workers live. In Missouri, for example, where Big Red F has one restaurant, mail-in ballots must be notarized. The team hired a socially distanced notary to come to the restaurant for employees.
Whether restaurants cannot afford paid time off or staff are wary of voting in-person, education about alternative forms of voting is crucial. “When you’re supporting a family or barely supporting yourself, when you work as many hours as we do, you don’t have as much time to pay attention to the details. It’s fascinating and a little disheartening that it’s so hard to vote,” Query says. So Restaurants Rally the Vote established ambassadors at each participating restaurant to help coworkers navigate Byzantine voting requirements, registration dates, and misinformation.
Despite its size and importance to the American economy, Query says the restaurant industry has long had trouble impacting electoral politics. “We’re so diluted,” she says. “We employ 11 million people, and millions more up and down the supply chain, but because we’re comprised of hundreds of thousands of mainly small businesses, and a lot of ethnic minorities, we don’t organize.”
That all changed with COVID-19, she adds, which forced food businesses to band together to effect change on the city, state, and even federal level. Activism in the industry has gained momentum, which employers can harness on Election Day. Like advocacy around the effects of COVID-19, the issue of voting rights is non-partisan, attracting national companies that don’t need to worry about turning off voters in specific areas. To really increase turnout, though, proponents will eventually need to win over, or pressure, whales like McDonald’s, which employs millions of people through its franchise network. In that case, it may be up to customers to vote with their dollars and only patronize restaurants with fair employee election day policies.
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