It’s been nearly three weeks since workers at the Holcomb Bridge Panera Bread held a solidarity “sip in” demonstration and delivered a demand letter to the franchise owner asking for safe working conditions, fair scheduling, mandatory breaks, and higher pay–but the only response they’ve gotten is a  visit from its lawyer.

Fully 25 of the 30 workers at the Panera store, located at 3280 Holcomb Bridge Rd, signed the Jan. 10 demand letter to Bluegrass Restaurant Holdings, the franchise owner. Bluegrass Restaurant Holdings could not be reached for comment. 

In the letter, they asked for a starting wage of $15 per hour, with annual pay increases for employees with over two years of service; fair scheduling with a minimum of 30 hours per week for full-time employees; equal treatment for all workers; a 30-minute paid lunch break, as well as sick days, Covid-19 leave and other benefits.

Two of them told Atlanta Civic Circle that they started organizing with the newly formed Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), which assisted with the sip-in and demand letter after corporate management ignored their requests for things as basic as fixing a broken air conditioner. 

A store manager, Brandon Beachum, and an associate, Keyshaun Jannah, said the employees have been asking management for changes for months. Beachum, who has worked at the store since fall 2020, said the franchise owner rarely responds to the needs of workers. “Things are talked about at work pretty frequently, but then they’re immediately shrugged off,” he said.

Keyshaun Jannah (left) and Brandon Beachum raise their fists in solidarity.

For instance, he said, the employees worked for months last summer with an old, faulty air conditioning system that corporate management wouldn’t replace. Last June, he added, the air conditioning broke three times in one week, causing the store’s thermostat to read 85 degrees, while the temperature for the kitchen’s prep line reached over 90 degrees. 

“Dust would build up and the inside of the A/C would freeze,” said Beachum. “With the ovens firing right behind us, the temperature kept rising.” 

Beachum also said employees were not able to take breaks on their shifts because the workload was too high. “We’re technically allowed breaks, but people tend to just chug some water and get back to it because we’re so busy,” he said.

Jannah, the Panera associate, said some of the workers aren’t treated fairly in getting hours. “Some of us are under-scheduled or not scheduled at all. There’s definitely favoritism.” 

After months went by and the owners made no changes, Beachum said, the Holcomb Bridge Panera workers started to discuss taking action. 

They connected with the USSW, also known as Raise Up the South, which low-wage service workers from Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina formed in November to build worker power. USSW’s members, who are fast-food, restaurant, retail and care workers, belong to the Service Employees International Union.

The Holcomb Bridge Panera workers worked with USSW organizers to plan the sip-in demonstration and deliver the Jan. 10 demand letter to Bluegrass Restaurant Holdings, giving the franchisor a one-week deadline to respond. Two weeks later, they haven’t gotten an answer, said Beachum.

Instead, since delivering the demand letter, Beachum said, the Holcomb Bridge Panera employees have been required to attend meetings with lawyers from Bluegrass Restaurant Holdings to listen to the franchisor’s perspective on what a union is and how it could negatively affect their workplace. 

 Managers were required to attend a Zoom meeting with one lawyer, while associates attended an in-person meeting with another lawyer, Beachum said. At the one for managers, the lawyers told them what to avoid saying, he said, “to keep the company out of trouble.” 

Jannah said he was not asked to attend the associates’ meeting. “I heard it’s mostly tropes about unions and other forms of discouragement–some of it accurate, but most of it not,” Beachum said. 

Jannah said the relationship between corporate management and some employees has changed since they delivered the demand letter. “The energy from management has been more cold and silent towards me,” he said. “I guess that just comes with the territory.” 

Beachum and Jannah said the workers are discussing further action. 

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