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labor ‘Working for Scraps’: Columbia Waffle House Workers Strike Over Low Pay, Workplace Safety

Waffle House workers launched a three-day strike in South Carolina in response to low pay, harsh working conditions and staff shortages. They are supported by the Union of Southern Service Workers.

Summer Schoolmeester-Cochran delivers a demand letter to management at Waffle House on Garners Ferry Road on July 1. State Rep. Annie McDaniel, D-Fairfield, stands by in support. ,Hannah Wade

COLUMBIA — On the same day that waitress Naomi Harris helped deliver a letter of demands to the management at Waffle House on Garners Ferry Road, she called the police, saying belligerent customers had poured salt and sugar into to-go cups and threw them across the restaurant’s counter. 

It wasn’t the first time Harris dealt with violent or unruly customers in her less than two months at the 24/7 diner chain, she said. It’s one of the things that pushed Harris and her coworkers to go on strike the morning of July 8, a week after publicly serving their petition to organize and a list of demands to Waffle House management. 

The employees are on strike over what they say are multiple issues related to safety, pay and staffing shortages.

“We are working for scraps and pennies,” Harris said. “We can barely buy the basic necessities that we need to live off of, we can barely take care of ourselves.” 

Around 10 a.m. July 8, five employees, surrounded by around two dozen other labor organizers, began a three-day strike of the Waffle House where they work, located at 7428 Garners Ferry Road, according to two striking employees. 

Shae Parker was one of the workers striking on the bright, clear morning in the Waffle House parking lot. An on-and-off employee of Waffle House since 2001, Parker said she decided to join her colleagues’ strike after hearing them read their list of demands on July 1. 

“I hope Waffle House will listen and make the changes necessary to be made,” Parker said, “because lives are on the line for the little bit of money that we make.”

Among the demands listed in their petition are fair and consistent scheduling, sufficient security for each shift, higher pay and repairing of equipment, which workers told The Post and Courier included a malfunctioning air-conditioning system.

The strike is supported by the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), a group that describes itself as “by and for low-wage workers across the service industry.”

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Workers told The Post and Courier that they’ve dealt with issues like unruly and violent customers, understaffing, unwanted charges taken out of their paychecks and working conditions that one employee blamed for landing her in the emergency room. 

‘Very unsafe for workers’

Summer Schoolmeester-Cochran often worked late-night shifts when she first started at the Garners Ferry Road location in February. Most of the time, she was the only waitress on the typical 10-hour shift, meaning she ate and used the bathroom if there was time — and there often wasn’t, she said.

The workers’ petition cites understaffing as a key concern: “For the safety of customers and staff, we need adequate staff to run the restaurant during first, second and third shifts. At this time, it is difficult to impossible to take breaks because there is not enough staff present.”

In mid-March, 21-year-old Schoolmeester-Cochran had a kidney infection, which she blames on long shifts during which she couldn’t make time to use the restroom or eat. Experiencing “excruciating pain,” she landed in the emergency room, she said.

“That was one of my worst experiences,” Schoolmeester-Cochran said. “Honestly, I’ve never had any reason to go the ER. I’ve never really been a sick child or anything. I’ve always been pretty healthy.”

She missed several days of work and lost what she estimated to be anywhere from $80 to $120 in pay during the shifts she missed, she said.

Harris said another coworker became sick to the point of throwing up in kitchen conditions that workers believe are too hot, which they blame on a faulty air conditioner. 

It wouldn’t be the first time the diner has had issues with repairs. Health department inspections from June and August 2022 reported problems with rusted shelving, broken equipment like dishwashers and damaged floor tiles.

“The heat (is) very unsafe for workers ... for the customers and the workers,” Harris said.

Physical safety is on the list of workers’ demands — they’ve asked for security at the diner. The restaurant is only staffed with security guards during weekend night shifts, employees said. They want to see security at each shift, after they said multiple violent incidents have occurred when security isn’t there. 

“I’ve been threatened to be pulled across the counter over a wrong order,” Schoolmeester-Cochran said. “I’ve had a guy who came in very belligerent a few months ago, and I declined to serve him. ... He flashed a knife at me.” She often relies on her cooks to act as impromptu security in those situations, she said.

A month before staff served management with their petition, a customer with a gun threatened Harris and other staff over an order of hashbrowns, she said.

“I was like, ‘Dang, I’m finna die over some hashbrowns,’” Harris said. “That’s all that I could think about: ‘I’m about to die over hashbrowns.’” 

Other Waffle House locations across South Carolina have faced issues with safety. A Waffle House in Kershaw was robbed in March. In January 2022, a Columbia Waffle House employee was robbed at gunpoint. The July 1 phone call Harris made to police related to the unruly customers was confirmed by the Columbia Police Department.

‘I can’t even afford to buy myself groceries’

Aside from what workers called unsafe conditions, employees said their weekly pay is not enough to make ends meet, a common plight of minimum-wage workers across the country.

“All my money goes straight to rent and bills ... I can’t even afford to buy myself groceries,” Schoolmeester-Cochran said.

She often gets help from her parents when it comes to groceries and food, she told The Post and Courier. She has applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called food stamps, three times and has been denied.

The waitresses said they make the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, which is $2.13 per hour. The intention is that the bulk of their income will primarily come from tips. Schoolmeester-Cochran estimated she works anywhere from 21 to 35 hours each week and, with tips, brings in a salary ranging from $70 some weeks to $170 others. When she’s not working at Waffle House, she holds down a second job as an assistant property manager for a storage facility.

“If you work 40 hours a week, you (should) make a wage where you don’t have to still live in poverty or still live on governmental assistance,” state Rep. Annie McDaniel, D-Fairfield, told The Post and Courier. “That just should not be in this great state of South Carolina.”

McDaniel spoke in support of the workers when they publicly delivered their petition July 1 and appeared on a TikTok video they posted in support of their efforts. 

The workers are also concerned about deductions from their pay that they believe are unfair. Employers are allowed to deduct charges for goods and services from employee paychecks, including for meals or lodging, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

But workers say Waffle House doesn’t let them opt out of being charged for meals during their shifts. It’s a policy that the Garners Ferry workers want changed.

The Waffle House corporate employee handbook’s meal credit policy, provided to The Post and Courier by an organizer with USSW, states: “Meals are made available to non-exempt hourly restaurant Associates as a condition of employment and the Company will automatically take a meal credit against wages otherwise due a non-exempt restaurant Associate, and the Associate’s wages will be reduced by the amount of the meal credit taken, based on the hours worked by the Associate per day in accordance with meal credit guidelines set by the Company.”

Workers at the Garner’s Ferry Waffle House said in practice at their store this translates to a little over $3 per shift coming out of each paycheck for a mandatory meal. And if the workers either don’t have time to eat during their shifts or choose not to eat a meal that day, it still comes out, they said.

“They’re gonna take out that money from my check for that meal deduction, whether I eat or not,” Harris said. “You can’t opt out of it.”

The employees’ petition calls for to the company to end “the mandatory meal deductions from our wages.”

For cooks like 46-year-old Jess Gantt, who has worked for the company for 24 years, hourly pay sits a little higher. Gantt said she makes $16 an hour, but doesn’t believe that’s enough for the time she has worked for the company.

“That’s a whole lot of bacon, eggs and waffles,” Gantt said July 8 as the strike got underway. “I’ve lost track of how many meals I’ve cooked.”

Waffle House declined to comment on specific issues brought up by the employees. In a statement to The Post and Courier, the company said: “Waffle House is proud of its long record of effectively addressing any concerns our Associates report to us. We intend to do that directly with our Associates.” 

‘Keep fighting by any means necessary’

In the parking lot during the July 8 strike, a 67-year-old onlooker smoked a cigarette as he told a Post and Courier reporter that the workers on strike were “ungrateful.”

“I think it’s ridiculous, they could make more money in tips … and they want to stand out here and strike,” said George Kimbriel, a Waffle House regular. “They don’t look at the big picture for the company.”

But other bystanders spoke out in support. One older gentleman told workers to “Stand your ground.”

The staff at Waffle House has joined other service workers across the state and country who organized in response to low pay, harsh working conditions and staff shortages. 

In June 2022, baristas made Columbia’s Millwood Avenue Starbucks the third to unionize in South Carolina, part of a national wave of unionizations for the coffee giant. 

And in January, employees at a Dollar General in Irmo went on strike citing issues with staffing shortages, safety and pay, which was also supported by the USSW.

The group takes a different approach from traditional labor organizing, which typically focuses on establishing formal unions. Instead, the USSW aims to cut out the oftentimes lengthy unionization process by supporting worker organization through other means, like striking and handing out demand letters.

“Nobody’s scared, we’re ready — there’s power in numbers,” Harris said. “We are going to keep fighting by any means necessary.”