Chicago aims to raise pay for thousands of restaurant workers

The latest battle to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers will kick off in Chicago Wednesday with the introduction of a bill in the city council that would raise wages, as labor activists herald the potential for “a moment historic” for thousands of restaurant workers.

A sea change is in the air for the city, which has a nationally renowned culinary scene and is cashing in on fictitious representations such as Chicago being the setting for the popular TV food drama The Bear, as well as playing host to the annual James Beard Awards. .

US cities have been hit hard by the coronavirus and many are now working through the resulting shakeup in the restaurant business.

“The industry is facing the worst crisis in its history,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of labor advocacy group One Fair Wage, noting the shortage of restaurant workers across the country: “And what is our response? Our answer is: this is the most historic fucking moment in America. This is the moment that could change everything in terms of income inequality and how the economy works.”

Jayaraman and other members of One Fair Wage pledged at the progressive Netroots conference in Chicago last Friday to continue a legacy of labor victories in the city dating back to the 1886 Haymarket case, the violent breakdown of a workers’ strike in support of of an eight -hour workday.

The standard minimum wage in Chicago is $15.80 an hour for employers with 21 or more workers, but only $9.48 an hour for tipped workers, so those employees are expected to make up that gap with tips from employers. patterns. Their employers are required to make up the difference if workers don’t get enough tips, but many restaurants don’t.

Critics decry $9.48 as “sub-minimum” wage and the battle is on to bring tipped workers’ base wages to $15.80, in addition to the tips they earn.

The proposed increase already has the support of Chicago’s new progressive mayor, Brandon Johnson, and city legislator Carlos Ramírez-Rosa, who went from being known primarily as a progressive insurgent to being the mayor’s powerful floor leader in the advice. Johnson served food and drinks for an hour at Netroots in an effort to promote the pay increase.

Ramírez-Rosa and fellow city legislator Jessie Fuentes are spearheading legislation in council.

“It’s not about if we’re going to get a fair wage, it’s about how,” Ramírez-Rosa told the Block Club Chicago news website last week.

Elsewhere, activists scored a major victory in Washington last year, where, after a protracted fight, the tipped minimum wage will rise in stages until it reaches the standard rate for hourly workers in the capital, despite pressure from the Washington Metropolitan Area Restaurant Association. . And eight other states and territories, including California and Alaska, now require employers to pay tipped employees the full minimum wage before tips.

Activists in Chicago are now hoping to take advantage of a tight job market for tipped workers amid recovery from the pandemic in a year in which the area’s leisure and hospitality industry has seen the largest job gains of any sector. , surpassing health services and manufacturing.

Service workers in the Chicago area, such as Antoinette Simmons, pointed out that an improved minimum wage would ease the reliance on tips that leaves workers open to exploitation and harassment from customers.

“I had to deal with bullying, most of the time as a waitress, and during the pandemic, it got really ugly,” Simmons said. During the pandemic, it was difficult to police customers who refused to wear a mask. “So yes, they insult you, but I’d better make sure I make you a good drink and bring you food.”

Passage of new legislation in council is not guaranteed, despite support from the mayor and influential allies. Other lawmakers in Chicago, where city council members are known as aldermen, who also wield significant power in their alderman fiefdoms, quashed earlier efforts to shake up the local restaurant industry.

In one of the most infamous cases, recently retired Councilman Tom Tunney spearheaded a law that killed Chicago’s food truck business by banning trucks from parking within 200 feet of physical stores that sell food, including grocery stores. convenience stores. He was the owner of a popular brunch spot in the North Side neighborhood and a former president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Previous efforts to raise the tipped minimum wage were pushed back by Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, who argued that raising tipped wages would put pressure on restaurants.

In June, Toia told Crain’s Chicago that he was willing to negotiate once the new bill was introduced. Those comments made One Fair Wage’s Jayaraman optimistic.

“The fact that we are seeing a willingness to talk about ending sub-minimum wage for tipped workers from the Restaurant Association, I think is a reflection of the fact that the mayor has publicly stated that he is prioritizing this matter. It gives us a very strong opportunity,” he said.

Leave a Comment