As restaurant owners, from independents to big chains, deal with the rising costs of business, an acclaimed indy Chicago restaurant is boldly defying industry trends by offering its employees full health insurance. That restaurant is Giant in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood where chef/owner Jason Vincent has been serving customers for the past two years. Giant, a member of Eater Chicago’s most essential restaurants, has a staff of about 25.
Health care has been available for Giant’s employees since July 2017, and establishing a plan was one of Vincent’s goals when he opened the restaurant. Vincent — who’s been nominated for a James Beard award and is a former Food & Wine Best New Chef — along with partners Josh Perlman and Ben Lustbader, feel a moral obligation to offer insurance. They had a long discussion before going forward. Giant’s plan is tailored for the restaurant through its carrier, only described as a “major carrier.”
“People thought we were insane,” Vincent said, describing how his colleagues reacted to the notion of Giant offering employee insurance.
According to stats provided by the Restaurant Opportunity Center, a New York-based worker advocacy group, very few restaurant employers provide health insurance for employees with the exception of a few salaried workers. Giant’s Perlman said he felt insulted by an industry with a “plebeian system where only the upper castes have access to health insurance.”
The most recent data from the ROC shows that 59 percent of restaurant employees with health insurance in 2015 received coverage from an employee-based plan. That’s actually a decrease since 2010 when that number was 67 percent. The ROC, through a spokesperson, argued that one reason for the decrease was lobbying against insurance plans by the National Restaurant Association. They worry about increasing costs for owners, perhaps at the expense of its workers.
Another reason for the decrease is that people have better access to health insurance, on the whole, thanks to the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). The ACA has allowed about 3 million people, including restaurant workers, to secure coverage since the federal law’s implementation in 2014, according to the ROC. The ACA hasn’t been immune to criticism, but it’s helped. Members of the industry’s establishment, including Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, have complained about how health care is an unfunded mandate that would increase the costs of food. The ACA continues to evolve and restaurants are figuring out where they fit in — there was an attempt to created an insurance marketplace exclusively for industry workers, but it appears that effort has been snuffed.
If they wanted to offer insurance, Giant’s owners knew they needed to pass along some of the cost. They worried, as a new restaurant, if they would push away customers by immediately instituting a surcharge. Giant settled on dividing the cost into thirds. The restaurant and employees each pay 1⁄3 of the cost. Customers are charged a 2 percent surcharge on the meals to make up the remaining cost. Giant’s owners said they haven’t heard much blowback about the policy from diners. The 2 percent surcharge was mentioned once via a Yelp review, and again on a customer Facebook post. Both mentions were positive, as one customer wrote: “The extra 2 percent for health insurance was representative of people who care for each other!”
Ownership also argues insurance makes Giant a better restaurant, keeping workers happier. There’s not a lot of employee turnover at Giant, something that can be partially credited to the offered benefits. But once word got out that the restaurant offered employee health insurance, it attracted more job applicants. Employees are eligible for benefits 60 days after their first day on the job. It costs workers about $50 per paycheck.
“It’s definitely one of those things where we can be more selective,” Vincent said. “God love this industry, but there’s a lot of schumcks out there, this allows us to skip ahead of them, to find the people we want to work with. We have options.”
While ownership won’t provide too many details, wanting to keep their employees’ privacy intact, they did mention two cases where workers have benefitted from insurance. Most recently, an employee found himself in the hospital for a brief stay. Another suffered injuries last year in a car crash and was in the hospital for an extended period.
In an industry where substance abuse is familiar, mental health benefits are even more important. Vincent’s been seeing a therapist for seven years. He joked that a smart therapist would be wise to specialize on the restaurant industry as a niche. There’s plenty of work available and employees would stand to benefit with improved mental health options.
The volatility of the industry is still scary. Vincent said they’ve been honest with workers, as when enrollment time approaches in July. If costs surge, the structure of the plan could change. Vincent said he is committed to keeping coverage regardless. Nevetheless it’s worth the effort to try to created a ripple effect in the industry, to change the culture.
“I feel like we have our realm of influence,” Lustbader said. “We have the opportunity...if we could reach out to our broader community, that would be awesome.”
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- Jason Vincent on Fatherhood and His Giant Return to the Kitchen [Eater Chicago]
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- I Work in the Restaurant Industry. Obamacare Saved My Family’s Life. [Eater National]
- Jon Stewart Takes on Papa John’s Obamacare Pizza Pricing [Eater National]
- Coming Soon: A New Healthcare Exchange Just for the Restaurant Industry [Eater National]
- My Job Was to Get People Drunk. And Boy, Was I Good at My Job. [Eater National]