Tens of thousands of people work at over 700 Red Lobster restaurants, serving jumbo fried shrimp, crab legs, and Cheddar Bay Biscuits. But, as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, few Red Lobster workers have access to paid sick leave. As a result, most Red Lobster workers who get sick are forced to show up to work, according to interviews with Red Lobster employees and previously unreleased survey data.
The dangerous conditions at Red Lobster restaurants were uncovered through a joint investigation conducted by Popular Information and More Perfect Union, a media outlet focused on the stories of working people.
James Swartz worked as a bartender at a Pennsylvania Red Lobster for a year-and-a-half starting in December 2019. He was paid $3.50 per hour, plus tips. In an interview, Swartz said when he developed COVID symptoms and told management he was not coming in for his weekend shifts, he was subjected to "threats." Red Lobster management told Swartz that he "needed to come in for work" and if he didn't show up or find another way to cover the shift he would "get written up."
Swartz, however, stayed home anyway for two weeks after developing symptoms, which was the recommended quarantine period at the time. But Swartz had "no paid time off" and "didn't get paid anything." He was simply "off the clock." He was only able to survive financially because he had a second job.
Not everyone has that ability. A current Red Lobster employee in Ohio told the Columbus Dispatch in September that he has worked sick because he can't afford to lose his job:
"We don't have sick days and yes, I go into work when I'm sick. If we call off, we get written up," said the worker, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution.
He said if he gets four write-ups, he would be fired.
"I don't ever call off. I don't want to get written up," he said.
Popular Information and More Perfect Union also obtained anonymous testimonials from Red Lobster workers through the Shift Project, a research project based at Harvard's Kennedy School, that conducts surveys of thousands of service industry workers.
"We do not get sick pay. If we don’t work we don't get paid. I worry that co-workers who have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 family member would still come to work," one anonymous Red Lobster worker said. "We live paycheck to paycheck. We can't sit at home without pay."
This story was reflected again and again in the responses of Red Lobster workers to the Shift Project survey. "Managers let employees work sick and do not send them home. Managers also won’t let an employee call out sick, they insist they come in unless they find a replacement," another Red Lobster worker said.
The Shift Project survey found that the issues at Red Lobster are systemic. Just 12% of Red Lobster workers reported having access to paid sick leave, well below the average for chain restaurants. Currently, just 14 states and DC — along with a handful of cities — require employers to provide paid sick leave.
In the most recent Shift Project survey, conducted in the Fall of 2021, 63% of Red Lobster workers who reported being sick in the past month said that they worked sick. Among that group, two-thirds said they worked sick because they lacked paid sick leave and needed the income.
Other reasons for Red Lobster employees working sick included being unable to find someone else to cover their shift (63%), being worried about getting in trouble (43%), and pressure from supervisors (23%). (The total adds up to more than 100% because respondents were permitted to select multiple reasons.)
In 2021, Red Lobster employees reported an average hourly income, including tips, of $13 per hour. Even for employees that receive full-time work, it makes it very difficult to make ends meet. According to Shift Project data, 18% of Red Lobster employees reported going hungry because they couldn't afford enough to eat in the last month. And 29% of Red Lobster employees reported difficulty paying essential bills, such as utilities, in the past month. For these workers, missing a paycheck because of illness, even during a pandemic, isn't an option.
In response to Popular Information’s request for comment, a Red Lobster spokesperson sent the following statement:
Red Lobster’s paid time off policies are consistent with our industry, in which the vast majority of our workforce are hourly employees with flexible scheduling options. There are some states that have paid sick leave requirements, and where that is the case, we follow the law and honor and pay it. We take health and safety very seriously and have an Ill Employee Health Policy in place that is designed to keep both employees and our guests safe. No one is allowed to work sick. Employees who violate this policy are subject to disciplinary action, including termination of employment.
Red Lobster did not address a specific question regarding whether managers require sick workers to find someone to cover their shift. And other companies in the casual dining industry, including Red Lobster’s former parent company, have taken a much different approach.
How Red Lobster treats its "heroes"
Former Red Lobster CEO Kim Lopdrup, who retired in July, credited workers for allowing the company to weather the pandemic:
The COVID-19 pandemic was the greatest challenge Red Lobster has ever faced. We had to make rapid pivots to keep everyone safe and meet our guests' needs for safe, convenient off-premise experiences with Rapid Red Curbside Pick-Up, delivery, and the introduction of Family Feasts…
Our employees are heroes. Our team's loyalty, resilience and hard work during the pandemic was incredible. Our people truly are the heart and soul of Red Lobster.
But what Lopdrup says about Red Lobster's workers contrasts with its actions. Swartz reports that, in December 2020, Red Lobster workers received a 16-ounce "Lighthouse Glass," which comes free with some cocktails. "We got one of those glasses with a red ribbon tied around it and a couple of pieces of candy in the glass," Swartz says.
Red Lobster's annual revenue is approximately $2.5 billion.
In lieu of paid time off, Red Lobster instructs employees to apply for a grant from the RL Cares Employee Emergency Assistance Fund. The fund provides cash assistance, capped at $1,000 per year, for an "unexpected emergency or catastrophic disaster." The fund is not financed by the company but by Red Lobster employees. "Our employees voluntarily donate to the fund which helps team members cover unexpected expenses in times of need," the company says. Red Lobster says contributing to the fund, which involves small deductions from each paycheck, is part of "Lobster Life," which means "being part of a family that has each other’s back."
In the fund's most recent filing, just 556 Red Lobster employees were able to receive assistance. The average grant was $451.
More Perfect Union has launched a petition calling on Red Lobster to provide paid leave to all of its employees.
Red Lobster's parent company and slave labor
In August 2020, Red Lobster was sold to a group of investors led by Thai Union, a seafood supplier based in Thailand. The company, which also owns other popular brands such as Chicken of the Sea, has a checkered history with regards to worker rights.
A 2015 investigation by the Associated Press — "Are slaves catching the fish you buy?" — found that Thai Union was selling seafood caught and processed using slave labor.
At the Gig Peeling Factory, nearly 100 Burmese laborers were trapped, most working for almost nothing. They spent 16 hours a day with their aching hands in ice water, ripping the guts, heads, tails and shells off shrimp. One girl was so tiny she had to stand on a stool to reach the peeling table. Some workers had been there for months, even years. Always, someone was watching.
“They didn’t let us rest,” said Eae Hpaw, 16, her arms a patchwork of scars from shrimp-related infections and allergies. “We stopped working around 7 in the evening. We would take a shower and sleep. Then we would start again around 3 in the morning.”
"We all have to admit that it is difficult to ensure the Thai seafood industry's supply chain is 100 percent clean," Thai Union's CEO told the AP.
Soon thereafter, the Thai Union said that it "embrace[d] AP’s finding" and ended its relationship with at least one supplier. In 2016, Thai Union said that it had taken additional actions "to eliminate slavery and human trafficking from its supply chains and business operations."
But an independent audit in 2018 found a "[l]ack of policies and procedures in place, including, for example, covering child labor, forced labor, recruitment fees, human trafficking or human treatment." The full audit, which was commissioned by Thai Union, was not released publicly.
Thai Union recorded a profit of approximately $190 million in the third quarter of 2021, the most recent data available.
Red Lobster's previous parent company charts a different path
Red Lobster was originally operated by Darden, the nation's largest conglomerate of chain restaurants. Darden currently operates six chains including Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse. But it sold Red Lobster to a private equity firm, Golden Gate Capital, in 2014 for $2.1 billion. (Golden Gate Capital sold Red Lobster to Thai Union in 2020.)
In March 2020, Popular Information revealed that Darden did not provide paid sick leave for its employees, except where required by law. This, according to numerous Darden employees interviewed by Popular Information, incentivized many workers to show up to work sick.
One former Olive Garden server in Arizona said they frequently observed people on the job when they were ill. "If you couldn't get your shift covered and called in sick, they would typically try to get you to come in anyways, and if you stayed home, you would lose shifts in the future," the server said.
Hours after Popular Information published the report, Darden announced it would provide paid sick leave to all of its employees.
But companies make statements all the time and don't always follow through.
Peer-reviewed research from the Shift Project, however, found that after the announcement there was a dramatic increase in "employee-reported access to paid sick leave" at Olive Garden. Further, the change in sick leave policy significantly reduced "presentism," the number of employees who came to work sick, at Olive Garden.
"We have shown that online investigatory journalism coupled with social media activity led to substantial changes in corporate practices," the study concludes.
The new benefit has not impacted Darden's ability to make money. The company reported $193.2 million in profits last quarter, beating analysts' expectations.
As a retired food service manager, also having worked for Darden Restaurants, I can attest to this environment of workers coming in sick. I would try to cover their shift for them, if they called, but if they showed up sick, I would send them home. Because of low wages, losing even one shift can put a worker behind in their bills. This is an industry wide, pre-pandemic issue with service workers. Raising the minimum wage is a good start. It's no wonder these people haven't returned to the industry if they got another job during the pandemic.
“Consistent with our industry” is exactly why I’ve only stepped into ONE restaurant since the pandemic started. That’s 2+ years without dining at a restaurant. I will not support an industry that does not support its employees and I will not consume food in a space that does not ensure a healthy environment.