Union of Southern Service Workers rally in Atlanta for air conditioning, heat protections

Union of Southern Service Workers members hold signs rallying for protections from heat inside their workplaces on Tuesday, June 18, in Decatur, Ga. (Marisa Mecke/WABE)

On Tuesday, Georgia service workers lined the sidewalk in front of a Popeyes on Wesley Chapel Rd. A hot summer day, some worker have umbrellas, others wet rags wrapped around their necks.

A majority are holding up signs that are demanding change.  

These service workers and members of the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) aren’t rallying for better wages, benefits or hours — but rather better working conditions during the summer heat. 

The employees, who said they work at various fast-food restaurants around the metro area, said that the air conditioning is broken in many of their workplaces and that heat is regularly a health hazard during working hours. 

“I mean it’s 89, 90 degrees outside, which was cooler than inside — How is that possible?” asked Arnice Sykes, a member of USSW who has worked at several restaurants around Atlanta.

She said that, in her experiences, it typically takes many rounds of complaints, as well as threats of not coming into work and lawsuits from employees before the air conditioning got fixed. 

“In order for me to keep cool, I had to walk into the freezer for a very long time, because I’m sickly,” Sykes said, describing the heat radiating from fryers, ovens, grills and food heating lamps.

Other workers talked about how they have seen employees fainting and experiencing other health-related issues due to the lack of air conditioning and water in the kitchens. 

The USSW organized this rally, along with simultaneous demonstrations in South Carolina and North Carolina, to highlight the lack of heat safety standards for workers. They say that as climate change makes summers hotter, their working conditions are only getting worse. 

Jesús Rubio from Georgia Conservation Voters spoke at the Atlanta rally, stating that he’s worked at several fast-food restaurants and experienced poor management and heat. 

“The organization that I work for, our focus is to try to save this planet from climate change, it’s no longer a hypothetical — Climate change is here,” he said. “And so when we’re working in the kitchens, and we understand the heat that’s unbearable, because there’s no AC, it’s only going to get worse unless we mitigate these things at a building level.”

The USSW is seeking air conditioning and consistent and frequent water breaks from fast food employers.

Additionally, they’re looking for managers to be trained to identify and prevent heat illnesses, as well as a seat at the table in developing heat and health safety plans in their workplaces. 

According to Rev. Keyanna Jones of Park Avenue Baptist Church, these asks are the bare minimum for safety.

“What we are demanding, it’s really not too much to ask.” 

Some states, such as California, already have heat rules in place — but Georgia does not. 

At the federal level, some of the speakers said the U.S. Occupational and Health Safety Administration needs to address heat. Right now, OSHA has proposed a heat rule that would cover both indoor and outdoor workers. 

“As of Tuesday, June 11, the proposed rule is with the Office of Management and Budget for review, and we are one step closer to giving workers the protections they need and deserve,” wrote Paloma Renteía from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs. 

But as the summer heat sets in throughout Atlanta, workers say relief can’t come fast enough, and that restaurants must be pushed to improve conditions. 

Popeyes did not respond to comment for this story.