Cousins Subs recently promoted Alan Lundeen to senior director of talent management. It marked the first time in the fast casual’s history it staffed a people-dedicated position.

This is quickly becoming a staple in restaurant C-suites as the labor battle moves faster than ever. While the pool was tight and turnover high pre-COVID-19, the game has changed. Another 1.19 million Americans just filed unemployment, making it 20 consecutive periods that more than a million people filed jobless claims.

The figure did, however, drop after two straight weeks of rising (from 1.43 million). Yet it remains significantly above historic pre-virus levels. The peak came in March at above 6 million. For perspective, the previous record was 695,000 in 1982.

Additionally, 656,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance—benefits geared toward gig and self-employed workers. And the number of people continuing traditional unemployment claims, from the week ending July 25, was 15.1 million (a decrease of 844,000, week-over-week). When including PUA, north of 32.1 million people are currently receiving some form of unemployment benefits.

So where this leaves restaurants is a complicated spot. The labor pool might be bigger, but it also has fresh roadblocks. Retention has added new, challenging layers, too, from keeping workers safe to asking them to police mask wearing inside restaurants to coming back for less than they were making on UI.

Lundeen took some time to fill QSR in on his new role, and what kind of challenges await in this ever-evolving labor dynamic.

Congrats on the promotion. Just for some background, what was your previous role at Cousins Subs and what does your new position entail? 

Thank you. I started with Cousins Subs when I was 16 making sandwiches. I later entered the manager trainee program and grew from there. Prior to being named the Senior Director Talent Management, I held the position of Senior Director of Operations and Talent. I oversaw our corporate store operations team and internal HR function. As Sr. Director of Talent Management, I oversee the company’s training, human resources and recruitment functions, while responsible for staffing, bench planning, training and attending to all personnel related matters at every step of the corporate employee lifecycle. I am also responsible for introducing company-wide initiatives to further enhance company culture, staffing, and diversity and inclusion efforts.

Let’s dive into the present. Staffing in a COVID climate is a pretty loaded question. What would you say has been the biggest challenge? 

In the initial months, and with the safer at home order, many people were uncomfortable with coming to work and we had to be creative in the way we scheduled employees. All stores operating hours were reduced to accommodate the limited availability of our staff. In the most recent stage, as the safter at home order lifted, and PPE was put into place (plexi-shields, social distancing signage and floor markings, gloves available for cash handling and masks), people began to feel more comfortable in the work environment and wanted to come to work. We had to make sure we educated all employees, including new hires, about the precautions we have in place, which includes taking employees’ temperatures before each shift. We have not seen as many people in the job market because of what we believe to be the higher unemployment benefits and/or a possible second round of stimulus checks. We believe the uncertainty of school openings and parents trying to figure out how they manage their schedules to accommodate home learning responsibilities plays a factor as well.

Is there some opportunity with a larger labor pool?  

Yes, as of recent we have seen a substantial increase in the number of attendees to our “open interview” days, as well as a larger pool of experienced management candidates from other fast casual and casual dining concepts. However, we still have a high number of open positions to fill (both manager and crew member), especially in our suburban market areas.

How is Cousins Subs meeting these demands?  

We added the option for guests to tip our hourly employees. Currently we have all corporate stores and 40 franchise stores utilizing the feature, which represents nearly 70 percent of the system. Tips are allocated based on hours worked. We see this as a major benefit to help augment the hourly wage for our employees and help make our wage competitive. We have also increased our corporate employee referral program bonus during a back-to-school ‘blitz’ period and are highly considering the implementation of a sign-on bonus for salaried management and for crew members at harder-to-staff, suburban restaurants.

Talk about training. Beyond just needing to incorporate safety protocols now, how is the practice evolving for restaurants? 

We have been offering more class dates for our core in-person management, baking and ServSafe certification because of the reduced class size to accommodate safe social distancing. We have also conducted several one-on-one virtual trainings as we rollout our new HRIS system platform for recruitment and onboarding to our franchise partners.

Is Cousins Subs investing more in virtual training? 

Years prior to the pandemic, Cousins Subs introduced CousinsU which is our online training university. All employees go through a series of online courses as they start in their new role with Cousins Subs. They also receive ongoing education opportunities throughout their tenure to learn about new menu items, store policies and more.

What’s the company’s plan if an employee tests positive for COVID?

Our plan is comprehensive. First, the store manager reviews the schedule for the prior sever days to determine who worked on the same shifts with the COVID-positive employee. The Manager then notifies all employees who shared shifts with the affected person that a co-worker tested positive and provides information on the nearest COVID testing site. Everyone who receives a call is instructed to get tested and quarantine until their test results come back negative. The restaurant is then closed temporarily to be professionally cleaned, which consists of an electrostatic spray (disinfectant) and wipe down of high touch point surfaces. Once the store is cleaned, it can be reopened with remaining, unaffected staff and additional staff from other locations. Our HR Manager contacts each individual to walk them through the FFCRA process to get paid. While trying to be as consistent as possible, we are approaching each situation on a case-by-case basis and using our best judgment. The paid sick leave applies if the employee was exposed or diagnosed positive themselves OR was in contact with someone who was diagnosed positive. We ask for documentation from the health care provider to support their leave.

How are you handling the mask enforcing element of training frontline employees? 

Due to the state and local mandates, we require all employees to wear masks during their entire shift. We provide reusable face masks with the Cousins Subs logo as well as disposable ones to wear. Employees may also wear their own. If because of personal choice they choose not to work because of the mandate, we allow them to take a personal, unpaid leave of absence.

Shifting to culture, this is arguably one of the greatest times for companies to boost their inclusion and diversity efforts. How is Cousins Subs planning to do so? 

We have already begun by partnering with community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and the Milwaukee Center for Independence to diversity our staffing. We also see an opportunity to attract diverse employees through our Make It Better Foundation, which is Cousins Subs’ 501©3 organization. For example, we provided funding for HeartLove Place, Inc. The organization provides the opportunity for young adults to receive a ServSafe certificate. Successful participants, who complete the seven- to 15-week program, will receive local, state and national certificates from the National Restaurant Association and the State of Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services. This allows for upward economic mobility via new employment prospects, potentially at Cousins Subs, and hopefully long-term family supporting wages.

Employee Management, Fast Casual, Story, Cousins Subs