“We are looking for volunteers for our new Drive Thru Express!” the store in Hendersonville, N.C., wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday that has since been deleted. “Earn 5 free entrees per shift (1 hr) worked. Message us for details.”
The store has been met with backlash for appearing to ignore the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the long-standing federal law that states how employers must pay their employees for all of the hours they work. The Hendersonville location, which is run by a franchisee, responded to the online blowback by saying the “volunteer-based opportunity” was intended for people who “think it’s a good fit for them,” and argued it was different from full- or part-time employment.
“We’ve had multiple people sign up and enjoy doing and have done it multiple times,” the store wrote in a separate post. “People who sign up for this chose it voluntarily.”
A spokesperson for Chick-fil-A, which is headquartered in Atlanta, told The Washington Post on Thursday that the Hendersonville store had “decided to end this program.”
“Most restaurants are individually owned and operated, and it was a program at an individually owned restaurant,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “This was not endorsed by Chick-fil-A, Inc.”
A manager at the Chick-fil-A store declined to comment and directed all questions to corporate representatives. Joel Benson, the Hendersonville restaurant’s operator, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Jennifer Haigwood, director of communications for the North Carolina Department of Labor, told The Post in a statement that while the agency does not have any jurisdiction over volunteers or situations where there isn’t an employer-employee relationship, the FLSA’s requirements regarding private for-profit employers “are clear that there cannot be an employee who provides ‘volunteer’ work for that for-profit employer.”
“Generally, labeling a worker as a ‘volunteer’ will not remove the employer from its FLSA obligation to pay the required wages if that individual performs work that benefits the for-profit entity,” Haigwood said.
Known for touting its “family-owned” and “biblically-based” principles, including closing on Sundays, privately-held Chick-fil-A has been one of the most profitable fast-food restaurant chains in the country, with more than 2,600 restaurants across 47 states, D.C., Canada and Puerto Rico.
A 2020 report from Technomic, a consulting firm for the restaurant industry, estimated that Chick-fil-A brought in about $11.3 billion in sales for 2019, trailing only McDonald’s and Starbucks among restaurant chains. In 2021, the average Chick-fil-A store outside of a mall made more than $8.1 million in annual revenue, according to franchise disclosure documents obtained by Restaurant Business magazine.
Chick-fil-A has also faced criticism for its anti-LGBTQ stances, specifically when the company’s chief executive, Dan Cathy, said in 2012 that he was opposed to same-sex marriage. The company later said that its culture was “to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect.” A store in Decatur, Ga., is facing a recent discrimination lawsuit from a transgender employee who has accused the franchise restaurant’s owner of saying it was an “honor” for the worker to face sexual harassment and catcalls.
Trans Chick-fil-A worker told to be ‘honored’ by catcalls, suit says
The store in Hendersonville, located more than 20 miles south of Asheville, N.C., is perhaps best known for employing Madison Cawthorn as a cashier, years before he was elected as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The franchisee made headlines last summer when it announced pay raises to employees that bumped their wages to $19 an hour, according to the Hendersonville Times-News.
As online backlash mounted against the store this week, the location wrote in a follow-up post to social media that the idea came as a way for customers at the Hendersonville Chick-fil-A “to earn free food to simply traffic direct other guests.”
“Usually a win-win for us and the volunteer who gets free Chick-fil-A!” the store wrote, according to Vice News. “That way, our team can focus on serving the guests in what we do best.”
A manager at the store defended the idea to Vice, saying the initiative for volunteer works reflected how some brands in the community “establish a relationship” with their customers.
“As a result, there’s an expression of desire from the community to be more a part of what that brand is doing,” said the manager, Ryan, who declined to give his last name to the media outlet. “We get people all the time that want to be a part of what we’re doing. This is designed to be an opportunity for that.”
Critics, however, weren’t buying what the Chick-fil-A store was selling.
“There is so much wrong here I don’t know where to start,” one commenter posted on Reddit.
Even with the negative response to the volunteer positions to be paid in chicken sandwiches, the Chick-fil-A location says it is still looking to hire those interested in full- and part-time positions.
Anne Branigin contributed to this report.