As the holiday season kicks into gear, service workers at Southern Waffle House chain restaurants are getting organized. In November, Waffle House workers from Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina gathered in front of Waffle House corporate headquarters in Norcross, Georgia, as part of an action designed to raise awareness of their labor struggle.
They hand delivered copies of a petition — signed by more than 13,000 workers and community members — to the corporate office directly, demanding safety at work, $25 an hour for all workers and the end of unfair wage deductions.
“We’re sick and tired of making poverty wages, the constant threat of in-store violence, and mandatory meal deductions,” the petition reads. “We refuse to be exploited — and so we’re getting organized.”
The Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) has been at the forefront of this organizing work, most recently organizing Waffle House workers in Columbia, South Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. Formerly known as Raise Up the South, this union started off as a Southern offset of the Fight for $15 movement motivating service workers to unionize. But with low retention rates for employees across the service industry, it became difficult to keep track of employees looking to unionize at their specific stores.
Waffle House employee and USSW member Gerald Green outlines this phenomenon well, telling Truthout that many who would be passionate about forming a union tend to move from one job to the next. That’s why “we decided to work as a union across the service industry,” he says.
Green stressed that this high employee turnover is indicative of the horrific climate that the service industry has created for workers, especially at Waffle House. “I’ve worked at Waffle House for about seven years now, doing basically every single job in the store,” Green told Truthout. “Before, [Waffle House] at least gave a veneer that it cared about what people wanted, and that it would provide for people’s lives. But since 2020, the company’s gotten much more greedy and just wants to take as much out of people’s pockets as possible.”
Green says his own transition into organizing was a direct result of the corporate greed he encountered early in his career at Waffle House. In fact, after learning his friend and Waffle House co-worker Jesse Hall was shot and killed during an attempted armed robbery, Green and his team were called into work as if nothing had happened.
“That kind of made me realize that the corporate office, and not my manager, was the problem. They determined that we needed to keep the store open no matter what, but someone just died — someone I worked with,” Green said.
Waffle House is notorious for keeping its doors open at all costs: Not only is Waffle House staff required to work holidays, but the chain has garnered a reputation for remaining open even during inclement weather and hurricane season. Referred to as the “Waffle House Index” the restaurant categorizes the destructive power of natural disasters in three levels: the green level, when the Waffle House is open and serving a full menu; the yellow level, when Waffle House is open with a limited menu; and the red level, when the store is closed due to severe damage or flooding.
Spending little to nothing on advertising, Waffle House relies on a marketing strategy that underscores their determination to take care of first responders and other customers at their most desperate. Even, of course, if that means sacrificing the well-being of their workers.
During a rally in Atlanta, Green stressed that while the Waffle House Index is often laughed at by some and even adopted by other stores, it terrifies workers. “During [Hurricane Irma], Waffle House actually asked me to go out to Food Lion to get paper towels, and it was thundering. It was lightning. It was downpouring … the power was out.” Green told rallygoers. “They asked me to get right back on the grill the second I got back to the store.”
Beyond building a marketing strategy around caring for desperate customers, Waffle House also profits off of its online persona as an attraction for viral violence. “A lot of people have seen videos of Waffle House fights, and people think that they can get their 15 minutes of fame. But we’re just trying to work,” Green told Truthout. Pauletta Dillard, a 20-year Waffle House server, further illustrated the violence she’s endured while working at the chain. “Customers get drunk and try to fight us. I’ve had sugar bowls & napkin holders thrown at me,” Dillard said in a USSW media advisory.
Green emphasizes that Waffle House curates this culture of violence by not speaking out or protecting employees against fights and the videos that come from them. “People have fights all over the place, but Waffle House is the only place riding on the image of being known for drunken fights,” Green told Truthout. “If [the company] doesn’t do anything about the videos, but they keep getting promoted all over the internet, what’s that saying? It’s a culture openly inviting people to fight.”
While incident reports are expected to be made in response to violent fights, according to Green, there’s essentially no protocol for smaller fights that commonly break out in the restaurant. In fact, all discretion for de-escalating fights, robberies, and other forms of violence that often occurs rests with workers. “We’re only expected to stay in the store — and if a big fight happens without security there, we’re expected to call the police,” Green told Truthout, a concession that could only put customers and workers alike in more danger. “We just want people to feel safe,” he said.
For Waffle House employees, this safety means having 24/7 security trained in de-escalating fights, as well as allowing workers themselves to create a safety plan for their stores, especially for natural disasters.
Waffle House workers are also demanding $25 hourly wages, especially for tipped employees, who are legally paid below poverty wages for their work. A practice rooted in the post-Civil War evolution of racial capitalism that refused to compensate Black employees for their work, tipping culture authorizes companies like Waffle House to pay their employees incredibly low wages with the expectation that customers will cover the rest of the balance. Across the South, this means that servers at Waffle House are paid between $2-$3 an hour. In fact, many Southern states — including Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee — have no laws which set minimum wage for tipped employees.
Cindy Smith, a server at Waffle House for more than 29 years and who’s still making $2.92 an hour, shared her testimony in a USSW media advisory. “I’m 50. I do not make any money at all while I hustle on my feet.” Smith said. “They think it’s OK to rely on other people to pay me, but I work for Waffle House.”
The company compensates some workers, like Danielle Mack in Orangeburg, South Carolina, a mere $2.13 an hour — the federal minimum wage for tipped employees. “Some customers tip, some don’t,” Mack said in a USSW media advisory. “I can’t do anything with my check. By the time I get it; it’s gone. I can’t even pay for child care.”
According to the employment and job search website Indeed, with tips, Waffle House cooks and servers currently average around $14 an hour. But with additional work to be done around the restaurant — including refilling salt and pepper shakers, cleaning tables, sweeping floors and doing dishes — there’s not always an opportunity for tips to be made.
Green, who makes $17.75 an hour as a “rockstar” cook (the company’s highest level of cook) admits that even these wages are nowhere near enough to live. “Living in Atlanta, I barely make enough to pay my rent. So many things are changing in the U.S. economy, and we’re not making enough money to live,” Green told Truthout. “For example, I recently hurt my foot and honestly needed a month off to relax and get my foot back to normal. But I don’t make enough money to take a month off — I got bills to pay. If I got $25 an hour, I can actually start saving and have time to heal my foot.”
On top of poverty wages, Waffle House employees are also taxed for meal deductions during their shifts. Meal deductions are funds automatically taken off each employee’s shift to pay for a meal they may have purchased from Waffle House — whether or not they actually get food there. “I get charged every week for food I don’t eat with the automatic meal deductions Waffle House takes from our checks,” said Waffle House server Jessie Jordan in a USSW media advisory. “If you’re not going to give us a dedicated time to even eat the food, what’s the point? We can’t even take food to go.”
Amanda Claypool, an investigative journalist who spent time working at Waffle House, calculated that these meal deductions were worth more than her hourly wage. While she made $2.92 an hour as a server, each meal deduction cost $3.15 a shift. “I basically work an hour for free,” Claypool said. “In some ways, I’m paying for the privilege of working at a restaurant.”
Claypool also calculated the actual amount paid to tipped workers when the meal deduction and other costs of employment are taken into account. In fact, despite officially earning $12.24 an hour with tips during her nine shifts at Waffle House, Claypool calculated that with the meal deduction, startup costs, commute and taxes, her actual cash on hand was closer to $9 an hour.
Atlanta-based Waffle House cook Green drove the point home in reading a now-viral letter to Waffle House management. “This company is profitable because of our hard work, and yet our wages cannot cover the basic necessities like food, rent and utilities,” he said. “Waffle house knows it can afford and provide us with a safe workplace and to pay us more, yet they refuse to do so.”
Waffle House workers with USSW say they will continue to organize until their demands for safety, $25 wages and an end to meal deductions are met. But for workers like Green, the movement doesn’t just mean having these specific needs met — it means workers reclaiming the power to decide how they want to work.
“I’ve made this company over a million dollars, but I don’t realistically have any decision-making power over anything this company does. Why is it like that?” Green told Truthout. “If you’ve worked at a place for a long time, why shouldn’t you have the ability to decide how things are done?”
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