As COVID-19 infection rates in Georgia soared throughout 2020, so did interest from the state’s hospitality industry workforce in calling attention to wage and health care disparities, sexual harassment, and a host of other issues laid bare by the pandemic. With restaurants devastated — hospitality and leisure workers account for 39 percent of jobs lost in the United States in the past year, and one in six restaurants in the country has closed since the health crisis began — unions and political canvassing became a lifeline for workers forced to choose between a paycheck and their own health, which comes at the risk of struggling to pay for rent, health care, and basic living expenses while unemployed. But in right-to-work states like Georgia, advocating for workers’ rights means navigating the state’s tricky labor laws, which too often favor big business.
Like more than half a million hospitality workers in the United States, Atlanta-based banquet server Theresa Cross lost her job when the pandemic shut down bars, restaurants, hotels, and large-scale events last March. A single mother of a 17-year-old son, Cross was out of work for the majority of 2019 due to breast cancer treatment and had only been back at her job at the Hyatt Regency for a few weeks before being furloughed indefinitely. While Cross retained her full health benefits through the end of 2020, she can no longer afford COBRA payments on unemployment and worries about paying for her own medical treatments while funding her son’s college education.
“I don’t want my son to give up on his dream, but his options are going to be limited now because of my financial situation,” she explains.
She will have a guaranteed job to return to once operations fully resume at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, where she has worked full-time for six years.
Cross is a member of the Local 23 chapter of UNITE HERE, a North American labor union representing 300,000 food service, hotel, airport, gaming, and other workers in the United States and Canada. Of Local 23’s members, 3,000 live in Georgia.
Unions are still rare in the hospitality industry — nationally, only 1.2 percent of restaurant, bar, and other food service employees are members, compared with 10.3 percent for all industries — and rarer still in right-to-work states like Georgia, where laws favor big business and hamper organizing efforts.
Georgia is one of 27 right-to-work states, and only 4.1 percent of its workers are union members. According to Michael Schoenfeld, a labor and employment attorney at Atlanta’s Stanford Fagan LLC, people often confuse “right-to-work” with “at-will.” Although both terms apply to Georgia, the former prohibits unions from collecting mandatory dues as a condition for employment, while the latter allows employers to fire those without employment contracts.
Right-to-work laws are the result of the 1947 Labor Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, which significantly weakened provisions of the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the first federal law granting private employees the right to collective bargaining.
In a right-to-work state, hospitality unions like UNITE HERE or Workers United — Schoenfeld’s client and a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate representing campus food service, stadium concession, and other service industry workers — have a federal duty to represent all of their company’s workers, regardless of their membership status. As Schoenfeld explains, “the state doesn’t let the union collect dues from everyone, which significantly weakens unions, leaving them with minimal revenue and resources but an obligation to serve all employees, whether that’s arbitrating cases or attending grievance meetings.”
In spite of the challenges, union membership has increased slightly in Georgia over the past five years, up to 4.6 percent from 4 percent, and UNITE HERE Local 23 president Marlene Patrick-Cooper says right-to-work and Southern states like Georgia account for the largest growth in the organization in that same time period.
“Working-class people in the South are thirsting for better lives,” she explains. “Many people think the South is going to be a hard region to organize, but our members are no different here than in other parts of the country. They just need a voice.”
Local 23 represents 24,000 workers across 12 states, mostly in the South, and has organized more nonunion workers than any other UNITE HERE affiliate this past year. According to Patrick-Cooper, membership increased 40 percent between March 2018 and March 2020 and has continued to surge as a result of the pandemic. “So many people saw UNITE out there advocating for workers, and providing resources like how to navigate unemployment and where to access food banks, and wanted to get involved,” she says.
While unions like UNITE HERE have seen moderate success organizing in hotels, airports, stadiums, and workplaces with large numbers of employees, organizing is more challenging for independent bars and restaurants with small staffs, high numbers of part-time employees, and fewer financial resources.
As Schoenfeld explains, “One failing in the federal law is that if employees in a restaurant want to organize, the bargaining unit would be limited to those 25 people employed at a single restaurant.”
And even fast food franchises are hampered by federal policy. A 2019 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board determined that McDonald’s corporate is not liable for labor practices at franchises, which not only shields the company from liability for worker issues such as sexual harassment and customer intimidation but limits organizing to a single location.
“That means if you have a union election at one McDonald’s, the employee is a member of that one restaurant — there’s no corporate method of organizing,” says Schoenfeld.
These smaller units not only make it hard to form unions, as a majority of workers must vote in favor of organizing, but they can also leave employees “more vulnerable to employer intimidation,” he continues.
For example, last March, an anonymous group of Atlanta restaurant employees announced plans to unionize as an affiliate of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), dubbing their movement Shift Change ATL. In addition to establishing a mutual relief fund and distributing $5,000 in funds to unemployed restaurant workers, the group organized demonstration and work strikes, distributed information about unemployment benefits and workplace safety rights, and called out Atlanta restaurant owners for unsafe workplace practices — including employers not disclosing information about sick employees during the pandemic. But the social media posts and website updates stopped in early August, and no one affiliated with the group responded to Eater’s repeated requests for comment regarding the unionizing efforts.
Instances like this — movements building momentum only to wane due to lack of interest or even intimidation — are another reason reform is needed to fix what Schoenfeld calls “broken and antiquated federal law.”
Under current federal laws, employers can drag out union negotiations indefinitely, ensuring the process is costly and time consuming for small bargaining units like independent restaurants with small numbers of employees and limited financial resources. According to Schoenfeld, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021, which recently passed the House, will make it easier for independent restaurant employees to unionize because it will establish firm timelines for negotiating a first collective bargaining agreement, limiting employer delays and intimidation tactics. The proposed legislation requires mandatory mediation and binding arbitration if both parties do not reach an agreement within a certain time frame, “making organizing smaller units like restaurants more practical and allowing those employees to more easily gain a voice in their workplace,” he explains. In addition, the PRO Act would permit supervisors to join unions, allow unions to participate in secondary strikes, and require all employees to contribute to membership dues, all measures critical to boosting union membership, resources, and power.
Advocating for workplace safety
As Georgia was only under shelter-in-place orders for a few short weeks last spring, Schoenfeld says union members were concerned about health and safety as people began returning to work in April and throughout the early summer of 2020. He cites employees not having access to proper PPE and employers’ failure to enforce social distancing in dining rooms and kitchens or disclose diagnoses and outbreaks of COVID-19 in the workplace as the primary issues his clients encountered.
Unlike other states, such as California and New York, restaurants in Georgia were allowed to reopen at full capacity last June. While that meant more hospitality employees were able to return to work, it also made them more vulnerable to hostile customers refusing to respect safety protocols and mask mandates, exposed tipped wage workers to increased sexual harassment, and increased their chances of contracting the virus itself.
Speaking under condition of anonymity, seasoned Atlanta hospitality director KL says he personally received “minimal pushback” from customers about safety measures and felt his restaurant “took the virus seriously.” The anxiety was still omnipresent.
“When you’re facing guests, you have to adjust to masks and density and spacing and flow and COVID precautions along with the added stress of maybe catching the virus at work or bringing it home to your family,” he says. He believes that union representation would have helped hospitality workers better navigate unemployment claims, establish safe reopening protocols, and streamline important communications around other issues during the crisis, but that organizing across disparate restaurant types — national chains, mom-and-pop, quick service, fine dining, and everything in between — is challenging.
He’s quick to add that his role is less risky than others’, such as line cooks, who work in close contact with one another and have a 50 percent mortality rate from the virus, according to a recent University of California study. Yet despite being some of the first essential workers asked to return to their jobs last spring following Georgia’s short-lived statewide shutdown, restaurant workers here weren’t prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine during the first few weeks of the initial rollout.
Even with vaccine eligibility now open to all Georgians age 16 and up, Local 23 president Patrick-Cooper is concerned about inequitable distribution and access, particularly for Black and Latinx workers, who have lower vaccination rates than their white peers.
Fighting for economic relief
With the federal tipped wage stagnant at $2.13 since 1991 and Georgia’s minimum wage of $5.15 below the national standard of $7.50, the state’s restaurant workers are some of the lowest paid in the country. The average annual salary for tipped and non-tipped restaurant workers in Georgia in 2020 was $20,544, ranked 52 of 54 states and U.S. territories.
Nationwide, the median weekly earnings for union workers are nearly 20 percent more than for nonunion workers. Cross says she and other members of Local 23 fought for a substantial pay raise a few years ago, and the union recently won recall rights, meaning their pre-COVID jobs are secure for 24 months after their last work day: March 9, 2020.
“I know other hotels that are nonunion, and they have already terminated employment and given people severance or forced them to retire early,” she says. “Without the union contract, our employer could easily replace us with cheaper labor after the pandemic is over.”
Her future job security differs from many other hospitality workers’, like KL, who was laid off, rehired, and laid off again by the same company before having to find other work. That cycle has disproportionately affected women and people of color.
For hospitality workers who have remained employed, fighting for hazard pay has been a priority. “The grocery and package industries, among others, are making tons of money during the pandemic, and employees are the ones putting their lives at risk to make it happen, which should correspond to a pay increase,” KL says.
On the hospitality union side, SEIU’s Fight for $15 movement has been instrumental in organizing strikes, demanding hazard pay, and fighting for other protections for workers in addition to advocating for the $15 minimum wage, which ultimately did not receive enough votes to be included in the $1.9 trillion congressional relief package and is opposed by the National Restaurant Association. The powerful lobbying organization, which represents restaurant owners, recently released the results of a member survey claiming that an increased minimum wage would “hurt restaurants and employees” and “have a negative impact” on restaurant recovery post-pandemic.
When asked if she supported or opposed union efforts for a $15 minimum wage, Georgia Restaurant Association president and CEO Karen Bremer said, “Our board of directors and restaurateurs believe in a free market economy, and restaurants will pay what the market will bear.” She also said the organization’s members “have concerns about continuing unemployment for workers,” as many workers make more in unemployment benefits than at their jobs.
Despite the stagnancy or disinterest some major players in the political and hospitality worlds have demonstrated, these issues have continued to gain traction with the public, and particularly with restaurant workers and union members. SEIU, UNITE HERE, and other unions in Georgia actively canvassed for Democratic candidates in favor of these issues up and down the ballot during last November’s general election and the January Senate run-offs, making 10 million household visits combined. More than 1,000 members of UNITE HERE in Georgia, including Cross, knocked on more than 1.5 million doors for both campaigns in Atlanta and Columbus.
The extraordinary efforts of Cross and other union members and grassroots organizations, such as voting rights advocacy groups Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project and Latinx and Chicanx community activism group Mijente, resulted in a historic win for Democrats in Georgia. President Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992, and the state elected Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate, giving the party control of all three branches of government for the first time since 2008.
The result of that victory? The $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which includes a $300-per-week extension in unemployment benefits through September 6, 2021, direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, 100 percent coverage of COBRA premiums for those who lost jobs due to the pandemic, and additional funding for COVID-19 vaccine distribution and testing, provisions that will make a real difference in the lives of hospitality workers like Cross and KL.
Local 23 president Patrick-Cooper believes her union’s role in flipping Georgia blue was instrumental in driving the national conversation about workers’ rights and that it will increase union mobilization in future election cycles, critical given that Republicans control all three branches of the state’s government and recently passed a sweeping new voter suppression law.
Long term, the ability of unions like UNITE HERE to organize more of Georgia’s independent restaurant and bar workers and continued advocacy for reforms like a higher minimum wage, improved workplace health and safety standards, and increased worker protections could be key not only to mitigating the industry’s issues laid bare by the pandemic but to electing pro-worker candidates from local city councils to the White House.