August 11, 2020

Black franchisees talk about employee safety during COVID crisis

All of the franchisees said they recognized their employees were afraid, so they did everything possible to make their workplaces safe.

When asked to identify their biggest challenges during the pandemic, three African American franchisees said convincing employees that it’s safe to return to work topped the list.

They shared insights at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance Town Hall, hosted by Gerry Fernandez, MFHA’s president and founder.

The multiunit franchisees, Karim Webb, a Buffalo Wild Wings operator in Torrance, Calif., Mike Quinn, who owns Pizza Hut restaurants in Flowood, Miss., and Linda Dunham, a McDonald’s multiunit operator in Paramus, N.J., said the fear has been especially great among African Americans because of their reportedly higher risk factors associated with the virus.

“Engaging team members and employees who are on the front lines and afraid has been tough,” Webb said. “There’s been an emotional toll and risk factors for our team members who are still engaged and working, and who go home to households made up of multigenerational family members.”

Communication and clarity

Dunham said she’s done everything humanly possible to bring her team back together and assure them they’ll be safe. Among her top priorities: securing as much personal protection equipment as she can get her hands on.

“We recognized our employees were afraid,” she said. “We did everything we could to ensure they knew we had a safe workplace.” Among the company’s efforts:

  • Starting communication hubs, where she and the manager called staff members regularly to check in and explain the restaurants’ COVID-19 policy.
  • Writing letters to let employees know their restauants had shifts open and wanted them to come back.
  • Putting employees in Ubers and Lyfts instead of having them travel on public transportation so they’d feel more comfortable about traveling to and from work.
  • Giving heroes’ pay “because they were heroes, coming to work for us every day.”

Quinn was committed to making sure that his company took care of all employees, especially during the heart of the crisis, because employees were so afraid of the virus but equally afraid of the economic hardships caused by it.

“We had to make sure we took care of them,” he said, “that they had food; we gave them food for home, too. We wanted them to know we were there for them through thick and thin.”

As soon as they returned to work, Webb’s employees were united in protecting the guests and themselves, keeping the restaurants clean and sanitized, wearing face masks or face shields, and practicing social distancing, he said.

Webb also installed plexiglass partitions and implemented other suggestions from the local health department to keep everyone as safe as possible. But, he added, it is the personal behavior displayed by his team members that has been exemplary, and one more thing that has brought them all together.

Worst times bring out employees’ best

Since the outbreak started, his employees have performed on a level he said he hasn’t seen before, taking it all very seriously, and taking care of each other.

Dunham said her employees too are extremely motivated to keep everyone safe from harm.

“They have embraced keeping everything safe and clean,” she said. “They’ve taken all of the training and classes available online. They’ve improved their knowledge of food safety and learned about social distancing, including the importance of the 6-foot decals on the floor. All of this has made them feel safer.

“They’ve also told us what they needed to feel safe enough to come to work. They live in homes with many people and don’t want to put their relatives at risk. That’s one more reason why they’re helping us make sure our restaurants are safe and compliant.”