Jack Pirtle’s Chicken employees stay on the ‘front line’ without hazard pay

Few incentives for restaurant workers who remain on the job during pandemic

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2020 11:43 AM CT | Published: April 29, 2020 11:25 AM CT

Jack Pirtle’s Chicken has witnessed Memphis’ highs and lows for 63 years, but the COVID-19 crisis is one of the “toughest” situations owner Tawanda Pirtle has ever seen.

When benefits outweigh employment

Pirtle’s “front-line” workers keep proving their mettle, though, putting themselves out there in drive-thru locations citywide despite the viral threat.

The problem is they’re not getting “hazard pay” as the business tries to maneuver its way through an economic disaster while – in contrast – thousands of laid-off restaurant workers are collecting state unemployment and a $600 weekly federal payment to boot.

City gets $113.6 million share of CARES Act federal funding

Restaurant workers don’t get enough respect to begin with, Pirtle says. But in today’s atmosphere, they’re proving their mettle.

“They deserve a whole lot more than all of us could ever pay ’em. It’s just the fact that we sell $5 boxes of chicken,” says Pirtle, owner of Jack Pirtle’s Chicken, a longtime Memphis staple with 113 employees working in eight locations.

She plans to give them “hazard” pay at some point. But in the meantime, the restaurateur is settling for offering her employees food and fruit to snack on – and some words of encouragement.

Nationally, Congress has passed about $2.7 trillion in stimulus packages, including unheard-of unemployment payments for hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers. Restaurants and retail stores in Tennessee have lost an estimated $870 million because of the pandemic.

Pirtle isn’t sure exactly what could be done for employees such as hers who’ve stayed on the job. But she suggests a tax break at year’s end or some kind of stimulus for people who keep putting food on people’s plates.

She points out the restaurant industry has taken a “hit,” and the “front-line” people took the hardest lick.

Yet since the virus came to Memphis, Jack Pirtle’s lost only one part-time worker who decided to stop coming to work because of the fear of contracting the virus. The stores haven’t missed a shift.

Even as business suffered after the company was forced to shut down its dining rooms, employees have shown the kind of resilience that typically wouldn’t be expected for people making about $10 an hour.

 Says Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat: “They ask me why we’re on the front line making sure Memphis gets fed while others sit home and get $600 more.”

They have a question, though, that won’t go away.

Says Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat: “They ask me why we’re on the front line making sure Memphis gets fed while others sit home and get $600 more.”

Employees wear protective masks and gloves, but those working the windows still come into contact with hundreds of customers a day, Pirtle points out.

“We’ve seen so much devotion put into it, but it’s been harder when they hear so much about” state and federal benefits for laid-off workers,” Pirtle says. Her employees think, “wait a minute, y’all get to sit at home and not work and get an extra $600 a week, and that was more than you made to begin with.”

Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, is planning to take action and push legislation to give “front-line” workers a boost.

“Frontline workers during this pandemic are in our hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies and working in fire, police and sanitation departments across the country, risking their lives to keep us safe and healthy. They deserve special recognition and additional financial assistance. That’s why I wrote to Kroger and 15 other Memphis businesses advocating they implement a hazard-pay increase,” Cohen said in response to questions from The Daily Memphian.

Cohen said he has also agreed to co-sponsor legislation, to be introduced soon, requiring certain employers to pay a minimum of $15 an hour in ‘hazard pay’ during the crisis.

“We’ll get through this and those who are on the front lines will be recognized as heroes. They also need our help now,” Cohen said.

Pirtle doesn’t oppose paying $15 an hour but notes her business can’t afford to because the average sales ticket of $7 to $8 won’t allow it. The business did receive paycheck protection program funds, which will help it get through an eight-week period, but to increase employees’ pay she says she would have to raise prices.

“If we were compensated for it in some way,” she says, Jack Pirtle’s Chicken could give workers the pay they really deserve.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


Tawanda Pirtle Jack Pirtle's Chicken G.A. Hardaway Steve Cohen
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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