The COVID-19 pandemic has radically transformed nearly every facet of the quick-service industry, but one of the most impactful and longest-lasting changes has been the power shift and waning loyalty between employers and employees. Before the pandemic, quick-service employers could routinely count on several things: high levels of turnover, a seemingly endless supply of workers willing to work at or slightly above minimum wage and few long-term employees passionate enough about their job to press for significant changes. Contrast that with today, as the pandemic has realigned personal and professional priorities. Now, workers have realized how valuable they are to the success of their employers, creating an opportunistic environment ripe for labor unions to gain ground in an industry that had previously been a challenge to organize.
Following a vote to unionize by Starbucks employees in Buffalo, New York, in early December 2021, and with additional locations exploring organizing efforts, quick-service leaders need to start preparing for the prospect of their employees pursuing unionization. While circumstances at each business will vary, there are several actions, both operationally and through communications, leaders should implement to temper any desire by employees to organize.
On the operations side, quick-service leaders should evaluate the following:
- Competitive wages and benefits – Compensation and benefits have always been (and continue to be) some of the most critical factors leading to employee unionization. For a decade, the “Fight for $15” movement has slowly but surely pushed individual businesses, municipalities and even several states to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour. Quick-service businesses should regularly benchmark how their total compensation packages compare with other quick-service concepts in their area so unions can’t use low pay or minimal benefits to rally employees to their cause.
- Manager training and accountability – Ineffective management at the store or regional level can be a significant pain point for employees. It can, and often does, lead to them looking outside of the business for the support they don’t have at work. Quick-service businesses must ensure managers are trained to drive day-to-day operations, deploy effective communication and create a positive workplace culture, so employees enjoy coming to work each day.
- Scheduling flexibility – Whether managing remote learning with children, caring for an elderly parent or simply addressing their own health concerns, the pandemic continues to create countless unexpected situations that require employees to call off from work. While having the staffing levels needed in order to serve customers effectively is critical, it’s just as important for businesses to have a flexible enough scheduling policy so employees aren’t forced to choose between their jobs or their family’s well-being. Ensuring employees are able to call off when the unexpected happens, or can easily switch shifts with a colleague, can help ensure they feel valued and cared for by the business.
- Recruiting – Inadequate staffing levels are one of the most common complaints employees cite when they decide to organize. When they don’t think they have the right support to get their work done, employees can feel higher levels of stress and dissatisfaction. With the job market creating high competition for talent, quick-service restaurants need to come up with creative ways to increase hiring and they should regularly communicate about those efforts with current employees. Proactively sharing this information will not only show current employees that the quick-service is doing everything possible to increase hiring, it also gives them an opportunity to become involved in that process by letting their networks know about new job openings.
- Issues response – Labor organization efforts thrive on fractures within a business, and one of the most powerful openings is when a business fails to effectively respond and consider employees when an issue arises. No matter the issue, quick-service businesses must quickly connect with employees to assess and address how they are doing after an incident occurs. Then, they must rapidly make any operational changes needed in order to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
On the communications side, quick-service restaurants should prioritize the following to further prove to employees that unionization efforts aren’t necessarily the best path forward:
- Two-way communications – Actively prioritizing and engaging in two-way communications is important for any business. It not only allows leadership to share important operational information, it also provides employees opportunities to share their experiences, successes, challenges and recommendations. Just as employees are expected to act upon the information contained in the communications they receive, leadership should also, where possible, be held accountable to act upon the recommendations that come from their employees.
- Employee recognition – Every day, employees at quick-service restaurants go above and beyond through a variety of actions to help provide better experiences for customers and improve the culture of their location. To recognize these actions, Leaders need to ensure there are processes in place – at the store, regional and corporate levels – to capture these often under-the-radar acts, and give appropriate and public credit.
- Education about unions – While quick-service restaurants must be careful to not violate labor law, they can and should ensure their employees know exactly how unionization would change the workplace. Employees should understand that management’s focus will immediately shift to contract negotiations and potential agreements, and they will stop introducing new programs or initiatives (e.g., wage increases, benefits changes, scheduling improvements, DE&I initiatives, etc.) since those will all be subject to negotiations. Further, management will stop communicating with individual employees about their specific needs, including things like wage increases, promotions and vacations. Instead, those items will be communicated by the union and dictated by the strict provisions outlined within the labor contract.
With the nation’s unemployment rate continuing to drop and businesses competing for workers, there is significant opportunity and motivation for employees at quick-service businesses to explore unionization if they don’t feel appreciated by their employer or just simply want to try something new to shake up the status quo. But, by reviewing and improving both operations and communications within the business in a way that best benefits employees, quick-service restaurants have a significantly higher chance of keeping unionization efforts at bay.
RJ Bruce is an Account Director – Crisis & Issues at Reputation Partners, an independently owned, privately-held, national strategic communications and public relations firm dedicated to building and protecting brand and organizational reputations.