How Chick-fil-A is trying to keep drive-thru workers safe as long lines force employees to face harsh weather this winter

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  • Chick-fil-A relies on employees to work outside at drive-thrus, even in intense weather conditions.
  • The chain has introduced winter coats and heated canopies to keep employees safe and comfortable.
  • Four employees told Insider about what it’s really like at the beloved fast-food franchise.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Chick-fil-A is known for friendly employees and good service. But things aren’t always so cheery for some workers behind the scenes. 

“I’ve been out 3.5 hours on meal delivery when it was 10 degrees or less,” one 21-year-old employee at a Chick-fil-A in the Midwest told Insider. “We couldn’t see the end of our parking lot because of how thick this storm was. I had literal chunks of ice in my hair.”

The worker said that she has worked outside in snow, rain, and hail. Chick-fil-A told Insider that it prioritizes worker safety and employees get frequent breaks.

Chick-fil-A has long been hailed as a drive-thru success story, with customers happy to wait in line for an average of more than eight minutes – the longest in the fast food – to get their chicken sandwiches. 

However, with Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru business booming in the pandemic, some workers are dealing with more pressure than ever before. Insider spoke with four Chick-fil-A employees, in four different states, about working the chain’s drive-thru lines.

Employees describe working outside in freezing weather, as the chain sends employees directly to cars to speed up drive-thrus. At the same time, workers said that Chick-fil-A is rolling out new strategies to keep them safe and comfortable, from winter jackets to the polarizing “pod.” 

Some Chick-fil-A workers say they struggle to stay warm, as the chain depends on them working outside

In recent years, it has become an increasingly common practice for Chick-fil-A workers to walk up to cars to personally take orders, in an effort to speed up the line. 

“They’ll put their employees out in that drive-thru line to take your order, in some instances, very far away from the actual physical store,” Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski told Insider.

“For the massive lines that a lot of them have, I do think that helps speed things up,” Kalinowski continued. “It helps give people confidence that even when they’re entering a big, long line of cars, that it’s going to be worth the wait and the wait is not going to be all that tremendously bad.” 

While having employees take orders on tablets can speed up business, it also requires employees to spend time outside in some less-than-ideal conditions, as the four employees Insider spoke to shared.

An Indiana Chick-fil-A employee said his restaurant policy meant that workers get assigned to work outside at the drive-thru at temperatures of 25 degrees or above, regardless of wind chill. When temperatures drop below 25 degrees, workers 17 and younger are swapped out in 15-minute intervals, or an employee over 18 takes over, according to the policy at his Indiana location.

During cold shifts, the employee in Indiana told Insider that the general rule is to stay outside “as long as you can.” He says employees who ask for a replacement typically get one within ten to fifteen minutes. A Minnesota employee told Insider that at his location, drive-thru workers are allowed to go inside for breaks when they need to, and outdoor workers are brought inside by 6:45 at this time of year. 

An employee in another location in the Midwest said that at her store the policy is not to make anyone go outside once it feels likes 25 degrees, although this is not strictly enforced.

Chick-fil-A said that operations vary by restaurants, and that that locations have the authority to pause curbside delivery when necessary, especially in the case of inclement weather and darkness. 

“Our restaurant teams have worked tirelessly to share a smile through their masks and deliver a seamless, contactless experience, primarily through our drive-thru and curbside service as most dining rooms remain closed,” the company said in a statement. 

CFA Henrietta

Chick-fil-A is creating new fixes for employees working outside

According to the Indiana employee, workers take multiple steps to deal with frigid temperatures. 

On colder days, the Indiana employee usually wears a “hoodie, gloves, light jacket, and parka,” he said. The Midwestern employee wears a fleece jacket, winter jacket, and snow pants along with boots, a hat, and gloves on the coldest days. A 16-year-old employee in a Minnesota location confirmed that the company provides warm weather gear necessary for working cold shifts, though he is responsible for some pieces, like boots and thermal underwear. 

Chick-fil-A provides employees with a light jacket and a parka, and they can wear anything underneath as long as the uniform pieces are on top.

The company told Insider that it released new winter apparel this year which restaurant operators can order for employees. The new gear includes gloves, base layers, boots, and a jacket designer to keep the wearer warm in sub-zero temperatures. However, the company said workers would not be outside in temperatures that low. 

CFA Weather pod.
Weatherpod.

The other weather protection gear provided by Chick-fil-A is more controversial among employees.

Weather pods are neon yellow and look almost like a combination of a small tent and a crossing guard’s vest. Many people are “uncomfortable or too prideful,” to wear the pods, the Indiana employee told Insider. However, he likes them, saying “it keeps us dry, keeps iPads dry, blocks out the wind, and makes it more tolerable.”

“Restaurant Team Members embody the spirit of Chick-fil-A and there is nothing more important than their safety,” the company said in a statement to Insider. 

Chick-fil-A said that as the company adjusted its drive-thrus strategies during the pandemic, safety was fundamental, whether that be protection from the weather or from COVID-19. 

“We recognize our Operators’ Team Members are working extra hard to accommodate an increase in drive-thru and delivery orders while most restaurant dining rooms remain closed during this time, and we are grateful for their commitment to providing guests with our signature service and hospitality despite the many challenges of the past year,” the statement continued. 

The chain is also testing some high-tech solutions. Recently, a TikTok went viral showing a Chick-fil-A taking an order via FaceTime, allowing the employee to stay safe and warm inside. 

Chick-fil-A said in a statement to Insider that the TikTok showed essentially the “same ‘face-to-face’ ordering you’ve likely seen in the drive-thru, just done virtually.”

“Some restaurants are using this during extreme weather as another measure to protect Team Members and/or for additional social distancing during COVID,” Chick-fil-A continued. “It allows the Team Member to stay inside, while still offering guests the friendly customer experience of a smiling Team Member.”

Chick-fil-A’s long lines are giving workers some new problems to handle 

Drive-thrus give employees other problems to handle besides harsh weather.

Insider found that Chick-fil-A has faced at least four lawsuits from local businesses and customers related to its drive-thru lanes since the pandemic began. Other business owners told Insider that out-of-control drive-thru lines are hurting their businesses, trapping in cars and driving away customers.

Often, it’s up to these employees to handle the angry customers and business owners. The Indiana employee said he has encountered customers who have become “aggressive” over enforcing mask policies, leading to arguments. 

CFA Henrietta

The Indiana Chick-fil-A worker said a nearby local Applebee’s escalated drive-thru complaints to the authorities. According to the employee, the city ordered Chick-fil-A to reroute the drive-thru, which often goes down a main street and blocks traffic.

“We get overwhelmed and have nowhere else to put it,” the 17-year-old supervisor told Insider.

The location finally reached an agreement with the city that requires the chain to speed up work on a remodeled drive-thru, which will have two lanes to cut down on traffic.

The remodel comes with other perks for workers, too. An overhang over the drive-thru lanes will block out rain and sun. They will also come equipped with fans and heaters, all of which could make outdoor shifts easier on employees.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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