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Black Restaurant Owners Worry About The Impact of Chicago’s Paid Leave Ordinance

The City Council is expected to vote on the measure on Thursday

Mayor Brandon Johnson and progressives are backing an ordinance that would expand paid-time off.
Trent Sprague/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

A proposed ordinance that would increase restaurant workers paid-time off was revised last week after objections from restaurant owners. In the middle of a chaotic week for the Chicago City Council in which Mayor Brandon Johnson’s floor leader, 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, resigned from his post as floor leader, alderpeople are expected to vote on the measure during Thursday’s meeting.

According to the Daily Line, the tweaked proposal would now allow for workers to roll over 10 days of sick time each year and two days of paid-time off. The proposal has the support of unions and groups like Arise Chicago and One Fair Wage which last month pushed through the elimination of minimum tipped wage.

Three issues have come up with the measure. The first was the number of paid-time off days. That number has slowly been reduced. Another issue is a mandate to require employers to pay out unused time off after workers leave their jobs. The third, which made a compromise crumble last week, involved exceptions for smaller restaurants and how to define a smaller business.

Since that deal fell apart, the revised ordinance carves out an exception for restaurants with fewer than 51 workers. They won’t be required to pay out accrued time off to workers who leave their jobs. Restaurants with 51 to 100 workers will get a year before the mandate begins. The ordinance would go into effect in January 2025.

While the Illinois Restaurant Association, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association have already voiced their objections, another unofficial group has come forward. Much of the opposition is coming from a group of Black restaurant owners. These owners tell Eater Chicago that the council has ignored their needs, treating them the same way as other restaurant owners with better resources open for business in North Side neighborhoods. These Black owners say they face bigger challenges compared to their colleagues and cannot absorb rising costs as well. They include Brown Sugar Bakery owner Stephanie Hart, BJ’s Market and Bakery’s John Meyer, and Lexington Betty Smokehouse owner Dominque Leach.

“I’m about fair terms for everybody, and everybody getting paid what they deserve with the incentives they deserve, obviously,” Leach says. “It’s been hard on us as a small-casual dining concept to even make a profit, especially with craft barbecue.”

Leach says she struggles convincing locals in Pullman that the price of her ribs and smoked meats is worth their prices, explaining the labor it takes to make her food. What hangs in the balance are improvements to her space. She’s forced to make choices, all while trying to lure top talent in the competitive market at a restaurant 16 miles south from Downtown Chicago.

She wonders how she can compete with restaurants at Downtown Chicago Hotels, backed by multinational companies: “It’s not fair at all — we feel that we were attacked so much in the last few years,” Leach says.

She adds: “We’re always talking about Chicago, how it’s made of a bunch of small neighborhoods, but without these small mom-and-pops, where would be without that?”

Last week, in a release, the mayor stated that his allies vowed to listen.

“My administration pledged to bring everyone to the table to hear concerns from large employers, small businesses, and worker advocates,” Johnson said. “We worked collaboratively to find a compromise, and we ended up with the most progressive Paid Leave policy in the country that will help businesses retain workers and help workers live full lives with dignity.”

Meanwhile, Ramirez-Rosa’s departure will impact the mayor’s progressive agenda. One Fair Wage’s Saru Jayaraman told Eater Chicago in September that the alderman’s stature was key in abolishing the tipped minimum wage.

Brown Sugar Bakery

328 East 75th Street, , IL 60619 (773) 224-6262 Visit Website

Lexington Betty Smokehouse

756 East 111th Street, , IL 60628 (708) 927-5614 Visit Website