- The Washington Times
Friday, March 20, 2020

Organized labor groups stepped up their criticism Friday of large restaurant chains, accusing them of lobbying against federal relief packages and demanding extensions to the government’s safety net during the coronavirus crisis.

In a conference call set up by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a labor activist group based in New York City, union organizers and out-of-work employees described an increasingly dire situation being faced by low-wage restaurant workers who have lost their jobs or had their hours slashed by closings in the health emergency.

“I’ve been a restaurant worker all my life and there’s really no other restaurant jobs out there to get,” said James Conway, a 63-year-old server who has worked the past 16 years at an Olive Garden near Pittsburgh. “I’m just hoping that the unemployment insurance comes through quickly.”

Support such as unemployment insurance is available, although the network is too scant and too complicated, activists said. They also excoriated some of the top restaurant chains in America, such as Applebee’s, IHOP and Denny’s for what they say has been an insensitive and profit-driven response to the crisis.

Specifically, Congress must pass unrestricted versions of family sick leave and paid sick leave packages that would be available to all workers, the activists said.

An estimated 500,000 restaurant workers will be out of work in New York City alone by the end of March, according to ROC-United, a left-wing group that has feuded for years with the restaurant sector in the city. ROC-United now has chapters in 11 cities or states and claims roughly 30,000 members.

The group has established its own relief fund, which offers $100 to $300 cash. It is open to all restaurant workers, but preference is being given to undocumented immigrants, workers who have children or elderly dependents to care for, or have tested positive for the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.

The fund, which can be accessed at the group’s website, has taken in some $115,000 in donations, ROC-United said.

One beneficiary, Portia Green, is a single mother in Harlem whose 10-year career in the catering industry has halted as New York enacted laws restricting public gatherings and closing restaurants for dine-in service.

“And like the majority of us, I have no paid sick leave,” Ms. Green said.

The union activists and attorneys said the Family First Coronavirus Response Act is “an important first step” in providing personal and family sick leave assistance, but the carve-outs created for businesses large — more than 500 — and small — fewer than 50 — have left out far too many workers.

“The large chains must immediately step up and offer paid sick leave,” said Anthony Advincula, national policy director for ROC-United.

The Darden chain, which runs Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse among other national brands, has been the most responsive to workers’ needs, Mr. Advincula said, while Chili’s has voiced interest in doing more.

But larger chains and congressional Republicans came under special criticism during the call for their alleged attempts to insulate businesses from the costs of a forced-idle workforce. Roughly 55% of restaurant workers in the U.S. are employed by national and regional chains, according to ROC-United calculations.

Thus far, 36 states and the District of Columbia have closed restaurants to all but carryout and delivery service, while three other states have restricted hours of operation and the number of diners, Mr. Advincula said.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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