The new Union of Southern Service Workers and affiliated workers staged a rally outside the U.S. Department of Labor’s downtown Atlanta office on Tuesday to demand stronger workplace protections and federal enforcement of safety regulations.

About 50 USSW organizers and workers from Family Dollar, Waffle House and other companies converged on the Department of Labor’s office at 61 Forsyth St., before marching to Centennial Park.

Gerald Green, a Waffle House worker in Tifton, Ga., traveled up to Atlanta to voice his concerns about unsafe work conditions. “I’ve had people yell at me, I’ve had customers throw stuff at me, I’ve had people cuss at me, and I’ve had customers straight up destroy the store while I was working,” said Green, who joined the USSW right after it formed six months ago. 

According to Green, there’s a process in place for complaining about an unsafe work environment, but no one in the management structure of Waffle House takes it seriously. 

Gerald Green rallies service workers at an April 4, 2023, protest in Atlanta. Credit: Shannon Drake

The Atlanta protest was part of the USSW’s first multi-state day of action since it launched last fall in Columbia, South Carolina. It was joined by hundreds of workers in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, who staged one-day strikes and rallies outside their workplaces, said the union, which represents retail, fast food and warehouse employees. 

Locally, several Family Dollar workers said their safety is not being protected by management. 

“Last November, I was shot going into work at Family Dollar. After the shooting, the company didn’t help cover any of my bills, medical or otherwise. This store is known to be in a high-crime area and we have asked Family Dollar to hire security—but they won’t give us any,” said Latoya Richardson, a Family Dollar worker in Atlanta, who has filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 

“I’m often left to work in the store alone at night, even though it’s against company policy. One of my coworkers was robbed at gunpoint. How can I feel safe when I’m left to man the store alone?” Richardson said.

According to a New York Times report, Family Dollar has been cited by OSHA 54 times and fined $5 million since 2017.

As part of the April 4 day of action, the USSW filed a federal civil rights complaint with the DOL, alleging the South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration has failed to conduct regular safety checks in the food services and retail industries, which are disproportionately staffed by Black workers–and so putting these workers at risk.  

The USSW has not yet received a response from the Department of Labor. 

Unsafe workplaces are common for Southern service workers, according to a survey released this week by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of the USSW and other unions. It found that 87% of service workers surveyed had a workplace-related injury or illness in the past year. Over half of the 347 respondents reported observing serious health and safety hazards on the job. 

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