Two employees took turns on the ladder, climbing up and down to painstakingly remove the block letters from the marquee sign outside a Burger King location. Letter by letter, they added a new message.
The candid note, posted Saturday outside the restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska, was the employees’ way of expressing in no uncertain terms that they had had enough — enough of management, enough of understaffing and enough of the scorching hot kitchen that at one point allegedly hospitalized a worker with dehydration.
“We all quit,” the audacious sign read. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
The message stemmed from a joke between employees that was meant as an apology to customers and a laugh at upper management, said Kylee Johnson, one of about nine of the store’s roughly 11 workers who quit en masse.
Their supervisors didn’t find the gag nearly as funny. The same day the message went up, Johnson said, the restaurant’s general manager fielded a phone call from one of her bosses demanding that she take it down.
Although she had already turned in two weeks’ notice of her resignation, the general manager, Rachael Flores, was fired, Johnson said. Flores confirmed her firing to Lincoln television station KLKN-TV, which first reported on the sign.
Working in the service industry during the coronavirus pandemic provided a wake-up call for Johnson. There were plenty of food service jobs available, she realized. She didn’t need to stay in one where she felt mistreated while putting her health on the line to report to work in person.
“We became essential,” Johnson said. “And then we weren’t treated essential by upper management.”
A spokesperson for Burger King, whose sales have surged this year as coronavirus restrictions eased, did not respond to a request for comment but told NBC’s “Today” show that, “The work experience described at this location is not in line with our brand values.” The restaurant’s franchisee is investigating the situation to prevent similar incidents, the spokesperson added.
The episode joins several other recent instances of frustrated departing workers making their anger apparent by posting full-throated notes outside their businesses as a shortage of service-industry employees gives workers the upper hand in negotiations over pay and working conditions.
“Want to know why we are closed?” asked one sign outside a restaurant in May. “Ask our corporate office why their employees are forced to work in borderline sweatshop conditions for 8+ hours WITHOUT BREAKS.”
The dearth of hospitality workers has prompted debate over the impact of generous federal unemployment benefits and the hospitality industry’s historically low wages. Amid the competition for labor, restaurants have sought to lure workers with hiring bonuses, higher pay and more flexible schedules.
This pandemic-fueled national reassessment of work has also extended beyond the service industry, with more resignations in April than in any other month since late 2000. Employees have pivoted to new industries, launched their own businesses or retired early, even as millions of others were laid off because of the economic downturn.
In Nebraska, Johnson said Burger King workers’ concerns were ignored. After the heat in the kitchen forced Flores to leave work early and miss part of a meeting, her boss allegedly told her she was being a “baby.” She was hospitalized with dehydration the same day, Johnson said.
In addition to the heat, shifts that should have had five or six employees had two or three, and one of Flores’ former supervisors was “very argumentative,” Flores told NBC’s “Today” show.
Customers were also problematic. Many spoke to employees as if they were lazy, Johnson said, and workers sometimes had to call police on particularly irate people. It wasn’t worth the $12.25 per hour that Johnson said she was paid as a jack-of-all-trades crew member.
Several of the employees finally tendered their resignations June 27 after Flores led the way, Johnson said. Most found other jobs in hospitality between the time they gave notice and their last day of work. Johnson, a senior in college, said she’ll continue to support herself through her other restaurant job, where management treats employees well and addresses their concerns.
After the mass departure, Johnson’s former Burger King restaurant remains understaffed. Online job listings for the location say the company is hiring for a team member, a cook, an hourly shift coordinator, an assistant manager and a restaurant general manager.
The Washington Post’s Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.