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November 8, 2009

Restaurant workers have rights CCHD grant recipient serves those who serve

By Michelle Martin


There are more than a quarter million people working in restaurants in the Chicago area, the second largest restaurant market in the United States. They work registers in fast-food franchises, pour coffee in mom-and-pop diners and serve haute cuisine in some of the nation’s finest dining establishments.

But few of them have any recourse if they are denied their rights under national and state labor laws, and the percentage that enjoys benefits such as access to health insurance, a retirement plan and paid — or even unpaid — sick days is small.

That’s where the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Chicago comes in. It is one of eight centers in a network founded to help displaced workers from the Windows on the World restaurant in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, it has expanded to offer training, advocacy and social- justice action on behalf of restaurant workers, many of who make a career in the business of serving food to others, said Veronica Avila, coordinator of the Chicago center.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development in the Archdiocese of Chicago gave the center a $15,000 grant this year to help organize the workers. It was one of 21 community-based organizations to share in $530,000 in grants aimed at empowering poor people to change the conditions that exacerbate poverty.

Next year’s grants will be funded primarily by a second collection to be taken up in parishes the weekend of Nov. 21-22.

Push for paid sick days

Members of ROC-Chicago, generally restaurant workers themselves, have surveyed more than 500 of their fellow workers about what they want and need, and decided the first policy initiative to push for will be paid sick days.

“That’s really a win-win-win for everyone,” Avila said.

Many restaurants don’t offer paid sick days and often fire an employee if they can’t get someone to cover their shift when they are sick.

“So they come to work sick, and then they don’t get better. The restaurant owner has a worker who is not very productive, and the customer has someone who is sick handling their food,” she said.

Moving up

The organization also wants to offer training to people who work in the behind-the-scenes jobs that tend to pay less so they have an opportunity to move up to more lucrative “front of the house” jobs. Classes include English as a Second Language for restaurants, how to serve and even how to suggest wines for different dishes, Avila said.

The center also will be ready to protest when its members are being exploited by, for instance, not receiving the minimum hourly wage (currently $4.80 an hour for those who also receive tips) or being required to share tips with owners. Traditionally, tips are shared among hourly workers such as servers, table busers and bartenders.

In addition, it will recognize restaurants that treat their workers well, said Avila. Some already have volunteered to host training sessions.