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As restaurants struggle to help workers, a national call goes out for government intervention

The mandatory restaurant shutdown in Illinois and several other states has taken an industry reliant on cash flow and turned it into an industry with zero cash flow.

Restaurant groups are responding with compassion, to the extent that they’re able. Rick Bayless announced that salaried employees would receive 66% of their pay over the next two weeks, and that full-time hourly workers would receive 32 hours’ pay. The Melman family has set aside $1 million to help affected employees; Rich, RJ, Jerrod and Molly Melman, along with CEO Kevin Brown and other major partners, have waived their salaries and all profit distributions.

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Others, such as Roka Akor, are earmarking $20 of every $100 in gift-card sales, and $20 for each wine bottle purchased, for an Employee Relief Fund; the group behind SushiSuite 202 in Chicago is giving 50% of gift-card sales to employees. At Mistwood Golf Club (and its McWethy’s Tavern) in Romeoville, salaried employees are donating part of their earnings to hourly workers, and 50% of all gift-card sales will go to hourly workers.

These are noble, even inspiring, steps. But they’re not sustainable. In a very short time, even the most stable restaurants will be out of money. Said one restaurateur who requested anonymity, “the difference between the ‘great’ companies and the ‘bad’ companies is, like, two weeks.”

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And so an industry-backed petition, which can be found at change.org, is being addressed to mayors, governors and federal legislatures, urging immediate action to help those hurt most by the COVID-19 shutdown. Among the requests:

  • Provide emergency employment benefits to all hourly and salaried workers who have been laid off or suffered or lost their pay for the length of the crisis.
  • Waive payroll tax
  • Endorse rent and loan abatement for workers.
  • Work with state liquor authorities to enable restaurants offering take out and delivery to also sell/deliver beer, wine and cocktails by the bottle.
  • Waive zoning/permit restrictions to allow restaurants to temporarily use their spaces as boutique food and beverage markets, offering an alternative to overcrowded supermarkets and by extension continuing to pay their staff and support their farms and purveyors.

More than 63,000 signatures have been collected so far; among the local industry leaders who have signed the petition are Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of Boka Group, Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Bruce Finkleman of 16″ On Center group, Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe, Stephanie Izard of Girl & the Goat, Bill Kim of The Table at Crate, Chris Pandel of Swift & Sons and Alpana Singh of Terra & Vine.

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