North Carolina Restaurant Owners, Workers Clash Over COVID Safety

By Mackensy Lunsford | December 28, 2020

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Restaurant owners, who have seen their capacity and hours limited by government entities, are struggling to keep the doors open, while their staff, often in a very public-facing position, try to stay both employed and healthy.

The tension in the industry has been exacerbated by a lack of clear federal guidelines, with businesses and workers left to enforce health matters, including mask-wearing.

With COVID cases climbing, some hospitality workers have been outing staff health information publicly, leaving business owners managing the resultant PR crises from their laptops with very mixed results.

“It’s more important now than ever, in light of the COVID crisis, to stand up for ourselves and coworkers,” said Caylea Jenkins, a former worker at Arden’s Wild Wing Cafe, part of a mostly Southeastern chain. “And, if you leave, (do it) for the people who come after.”

Jenkins was one of several workers, in a scenario of workplace fear surrounding COVID cases at the restaurant, who filed five retaliation cases against the business owner with the National Labor Relations Board.

And just this week, amid a flurry of online accusations, employees of Vortex Doughnuts filed retaliation cases against the South Slope shop with the NLRB.

At issue are several abrupt staffing cuts made by management of the doughnut shop in the aftermath of two employees testing positive for COVID. Several workers declined not to return to work right away, or at least until they had received two negative tests.

Managers there did not reply to Citizen Times questions about the cases, however they did post a public Facebook response addressing — and confirming — worker claims.

“On the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 1, we received news that one of our employees tested positive for COVID-19,” Vortex’s post read. “We immediately shut down our shop and sent employees to quarantine and get tested.”

On Dec. 9, employees who tested negative and were comfortable were “invited back” to work, the post said.

“The employees who initially declined to return to work were not invited back,” it continued. “We have offered references for these staff members and truly wish them the best. We are legally not at liberty to discuss these employees and their termination any further.”

Vortex denied hiding a COVID outbreak, then extolled the inclusivity and safety of its workplace.

“We are proud to offer a safe place to work for those who are willing during this pandemic,” it read.

Workers Organize

Jenkins, who hadn’t worked for Wild Wing since early summer, said she was retaliated against after voicing concerns about working conditions on private social media channels.

Jenkins said she stayed home while awaiting COVID test results after coming into contact with a sick customer, as well as another employee’s sick relative.

In the interim, she said, Wild Wing management stopped replying to her phone calls and excluded her from company-wide communications.

Jenkins never returned to work, and Wild Wing owner Dave McFarland denied all allegations to the Citizen Times.

The competing stories underscore the confusion and, sometimes, fear among some industry workers who feel like they have to choose between health and a paycheck.

Since leaving Wild Wing, Jenkins has helped form the Asheville chapter of Restaurant Opportunities United, which helps workers understand and advocate for their own rights.

“Ultimately, that’s what this is about,” she said. “There’s no need to suffer in fear. We can do something about it, which is why we created ROC for Asheville.”

Are Restaurants Required To Close?

For now, neither the CDC nor Buncombe County require restaurants to close for positive COVID cases among staff.

The county health department also does not require a restaurant to report positive cases publicly, as long as there is no danger to public health.

Asheville Independent Restaurants executive director Jane Anderson said the health department is handling COVID cases and contact tracing on a case-by-case basis.

“So with the restaurants, what’s clearly happened is that the people who need to know, know,” she said.

That some restaurants choose to publicly announce staff COVID cases can make others appear to be hiding something when they take a quieter approach.

“When, in fact, they are not,” Anderson said. “To my knowledge, there has not been a COVID cluster in (an AIR-member) restaurant. I’m confident our AIR restaurants are doing the right thing.”

`Need For Industry-Wide Relief’

Early Girl Eatery is another local restaurant that’s come under online fire after positive cases among staff.

The partner of one Early Girl employee on Dec. 12 anonymously wrote to the Citizen Times, accusing the restaurant of keeping staff members’ positive COVID tests quiet. The complaint also said employees feared they would lose their jobs if they did not report to work.

Co-owner Jesson Gil said the claims and others circulating on social media were untrue, and that the restaurant conducted contact tracing upon learning of the positive case.

“We then notified all staff of the positive case and encouraged them to get tested, if they felt they may have been exposed,” he said. Gill said there is no reason for employees to fear they’d lose their jobs.

On Dec. 12, the Gils announced publicly that an employee tested positive for COVID. The restaurant closed temporarily Dec. 14 after another employee tested positive, with plans to reopen Dec. 17.

“We will not make that call until we receive negative test results from all of our staff,” Gil said in an email to the Citizen Times. “If we don’t deem it the safest possible situation, we will not reopen.”

Gil also said the vagueness of the COVID playbook leaves an uncommon amount of decision-making up to the businesses owner.

“From a government perspective, the course of action for restaurants handling a positive COVID-19 case is wide open,” he said.

Gil also said closures, government mandated or otherwise, had their impacts.

“This year has certainly proved challenging from a financial perspective, and there is undoubtedly a need for additional relief industrywide, especially as we head into an uncertain winter season,” he said.

About Mackensy Lunsford

Lunsford wrote this for the Asheville Citizen Times.

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.