LOS ANGELES -- Now in its fourth season, "Undercover Boss'" formula is familiar.
The CBS show disguises a CEO and places him or her at the lowest rungs of the company. The CEO gets an unvarnished look at daily operations, is humbled by the employees' often backbreaking work and eventually showers a few deserving staffers with money and other rewards to recognize them for their integrity on the job.
Such was Friday night's episode, in which Fatburger CEO Andy Wiederhorn leaves his Beverly Hills mansion and corporate headquarters to infiltrate three franchised restaurants and one third-party supplier. At one store in Reno, Nev., he meets a Fatburger shift leader and mother of three named Lisa who is buried in health care debt following her husband's death.
Lisa explains that she had separated from her husband in January 2012 because of his drug use (video above, at minute 2:40). A few months later, they discovered that his drug addiction was eating away at his heart. He eventually died, only one day after their baby turned 1. Lisa lost her house and car. To make ends meet, she moved her family in with her sister.
"His medical bills alone -- because we didn't have health insurance -- $250,000," Lisa cries to the man she thinks is trainee Myron Leeds. By the end of the episode, Wiederhorn reveals his true identity to Lisa and gifts her three sums of money: $15,000 to cover rent for a year, $10,000 to buy a new car and $15,000 to hire a financial adviser.
"You need to have a fresh start ... to help you resolve all this debt so that you're debt-free," Wiederhorn tells her. "Whether that's bankruptcy or whether that's working it out, I want you to start over debt free."
In a follow-up email to HuffPost, Wiederhorn added this additional take on Lisa's situation: "Medical debt shouldn't require a bankruptcy filing, as it forces a person to go through such a drastic process to shed a very specific debt, which is almost always beyond your control unlike credit card debt."
As a shift leader, it's estimated that Lisa could be earning about $21,000 a year, according to salary aggregator site careerbliss.com. The show doesn't make clear whether Lisa was employed by Fatburger at the time of her husband's death.
Lisa's life may well be transformed by Wiederhorn's generosity. But due to Fatburger's franchise system, Wiederhorn probably won't be able to address health care access problems on a wider scale in his company, he explained in a phone interview with The Huffington Post.
Fatburger, which he described as a "99% franchise model," operates only a handful of restaurants directly. Wiederhorn said he was committed to providing health benefits as Obamacare mandates to the half-dozen or so hamburger stands he controls, but access to benefits for the rest of the company's workers is mostly a franchise responsibility.
"The franchise partners have different health programs for their employees," Wiederhorn told HuffPost. "Generally the managers get coverage automatically, the full-time employees get some sort of coverage and they co-pay for it and the part-time employees can pay for it if they want it."
"We want all of our employees to have [health insurance]," continued Wiederhorn. "And it's a really challenging process to figure out how small business can afford it."
Fatburger isn't the only fast food chain that will be affected by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which will require all small businesses to provide health care to employees working 30 hours or more. Like Fatburger, the changes will have to be implemented at the franchise level by franchise partners.
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