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Franchises Scramble to Rehire Amid Employee Fears


"We went from everybody's under lock and key, to it's a free-for-all," said Jason Westhoff, right, president of Wisconsin-based Cousins Subs, where the state's Supreme Court struck down the stay-at-home mandate May 13.

Talk about whiplash. Wisconsin-based Cousins Subs immediately went into reopen planning mode, said President Jason Westhoff, after the state's Supreme Court struck down the governor's stay-at-home mandate yesterday. 

Immediately, the order to keep dining rooms closed through May 26 was lifted, and without any guidance.

"We went from everybody's under lock and key, to it's a free-for-all," Westhoff said.

"There's a lot of politics in the background. When the legislature filed the suit, they made a recommendation for a six-day stay in the event the court revoked it, to have a Plan B. And the court said, 'No you don't get your six days,'" Westhoff said. 

"The Tavern League announced that bars were free to open, and I know for sure a few of them did," last night.

Westhoff and fellow Cousins executives met last evening and decided to hold off for 48 hours before announcing a reopening plan, to see what counties and municipalities would do. Most have extended their stay-at-home rules through May 26, he said.

"We prepared for what our dining rooms will look like when they do open, and we shared that this week. We're not going to mandate to our franchisees," about when to reopen. Cousins has 100 stores, 60 of them in the Milwaukee area.

I asked what he's hearing about whether employees will come back to work when they're needed: Are they staying home because they're scared of the virus? Are they needed to care for children or elders so they can't come to work? Are they enjoying the $600 per week federal add-on to state unemployment benefits?

"Definitely yes to that last one," Westhoff said.

There are two pieces of hiring: No. 1, hourly staff, and Cousins' corporate stores are pretty well set for now.

"No. 2, we're looking at GMs in other systems" that may be out of work. To your point earlier, they may be collecting that extra 600 bucks."

In Wisconsin, "that takes you up to a $52,000 salary. That's a sweet spot" for general managers. "We may not be able to get them back until after it runs out." 

He's noted "a lot of anxiety that's being created and exists" at the store level. "Let's be honest, a lot of people working in an hourly industry aren't doing it because they love it…they need to pay their bills. The best thing we can do is to reinforce our positive cultural values.

"There's definitely a lot of counseling that's occurring between the managers and the staff," he said. "There's a real team mentality among the stores. The teams are bonding."

Prose operators 'showing the love'

Meanwhile, at Prose nail salons in Florida and Tennessee, reopening dates were announced in advance so franchisees could better prepare. 

A salon in Orlando, for example, opened May 11 and had 100 percent capacity. "They did an amazing job," said VP of Operations Beau Citron. The operator, Elsy Romero, had laid off 18 employees, and she "brought back 16 or 17." The key to rehiring success for Romero, he said, was being "super engaged, always having text messages, sending emails, calling people individually, showing the love."

"The operators that are engaged with their group, that make someone feel comfortable," are succeeding.

He also noted the unemployment spiff, advising operators to explain the federal amounts are temporary. "So you're aware, that's going to end," they'll say, currently on July 31 although that could change. "So it takes a lot of leadership and explanation. It's not like you can sit on your couch and collect $600 a week forever."

Study shows employee fears

Another obstacle to rehiring is fearful employees. A recent study by Qualtrics, surveying more than 2,000 Americans, said overall, the American workforce is not confident about returning to the workplace. Two out of three people said they would feel uncomfortable returning to the workplace right now.

That goes for all age groups, from boomers to Gen Z. 

To feel comfortable returning to work, people want: Assurance from authorities. Sixty-three percent want the CDC to say it's safe, while half say their state and local officials saying the same would help, the study said.

Effective medical interventions: A little under half say a treatment (47 percent) or vaccine (45 percent) would make them feel safe to return.

Safety policies: 47 percent say they want all employees to be required to wear masks; 45 percent say they want a no handshakes/hugs policy at work; and 38 percent said they want employees who travel for work or pleasure to be required to self-quarantine for 14 days afterward, according to the study.

Technology a plus & minus

Jeff Cronin, chief product officer at Ascentis, said technology may come into play, to help in the effort to relieve employee fears. "Maybe the better word is trepidation and concern about what going back to work looks like," he said. "It's all about providing confidence that the environment they're going back into is as safe as it can be."

Simple things can help, such as encouraging people to wear masks and deep cleaning high-touch areas, common areas and individual workspaces. 

In addition, his company is rolling out a product that can screen employees and customers alike, by taking their temperature and asking them six questions from the CDC.  

The product, part of its CarePoint line, eliminates the need for an employee to stand at the door to do the checks, and also allows hands-free interaction with an existing piece of hardware that is already routinely used: the time clock.

Of course, such screenings are raising privacy concerns around the country. "Ninety days ago this would have been illegal, and now in some jurisdictions it's mandatory," he noted, underscoring yet another challenge for employers trying to get their workplaces back to the new normal.

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The latest news, opinions and commentary on what's happening in the franchise arena that could affect your business.

Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
Beth EwenBeth Ewen is senior editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3212, or send story ideas to bewen@franchisetimes.com.
Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at




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