Waffle House employees push for improved labor conditions

Rally held at an Atlanta store by a union group seeking $25-an-hour wages and improved security

Waffle House often serves its hash browns scattered. But a service union is making a push for its workers to organize.

The Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), which represents low-wage workers in the service industry, has posted a petition with demands for Waffle House to raise employees’ base pay, end a mandatory deductions policy for worker meals and provide 24-hour security at restaurants.

Unions have made a concerted effort to organize service workers in recent years, finding some success with Starbucks cafes, Amazon warehouses and famed Athens craft brewery Creature Comforts. Now, they’ve turned to an iconic 24/7 Southern diner, known for waffles, Texas Cheesesteaks and occasionally viral fisticuffs.

Gerald Green, a cook at the Waffle House on 100 Piedmont Ave. SE in Atlanta, got involved with USSW in 2022 when it was known as Raise Up the South, the Southern offshoot of political movement Fight For $15. He has worked at Waffle House on and off since about 2016. For the past seven months, he has been working in Atlanta as a Waffle House “Rockstar Cook,” which is the company’s highest level of cook.

“We’re rapidly growing because people see, ‘Oh, hey, there’s an actual effort to get a union going at Waffle House,’” Green said of the union, though the USSW does not plan to file a formal petition to unionize. A representative from USSW said that workers instead put “direct pressure” on companies by “participating in protected union activity” like petitioning.

On Sept. 28, Waffle House employees and USSW organizers rallied at Green’s Waffle House near Georgia State University to reiterate their demands.

“It was a coordinated effort to get Waffle House to respect our demands,” Green said.

This includes a base pay of $25 an hour. According to the job site Indeed, Waffle House cooks currently make an average of $13.98 per hour, with servers making an average of $14.93 per hour.

Green said he makes $17.75 an hour as the highest level of cook before management, though it varies from store to store. A base pay would apply to both cooks and servers, whose lower hourly wages are intended to be offset by tips, he said.

Workers also hope for an end to the meal deduction policy, where money is automatically deducted from an employee’s paycheck even if they don’t eat during a shift.

Workers are also demanding better security. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported on multiple incidences of violence at Waffle Houses, including a former teenage Waffle House employee who was fatally shot in front of a DeKalb County Waffle House in August.

Since coming to Atlanta, Green said he’s seen “a lot of crazy violence in downtown Atlanta,” including people banging on the windows, getting in fights and throwing things.

“It’s just really convinced me more that this needs to happen, we need to start creating a culture of safety around Waffle House, because if we don’t, all of this is gonna keep getting worse and people are going to be in danger,” he said.

Waffle House spokesperson Njeri Boss said the company is aware of what Waffle House called “non-employee union organizers” entering restaurants and who have “engaged in behavior disruptive to our diners’ experiences and our Associates’ abilities to earn tips and bonuses.”

Boss said in the statement they have asked the union to stop non-employee organizers from entering the restaurants to rally. She said management has met with workers about pay, benefits and security measures.

USSW wasn’t able to provide an official number of Waffle House employees involved in the recent rally. But Green said the goal is to earn more signatures on the petition.

AJC staff writer Michael E. Kanell contributed to this article.