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Lightfoot’s pandemic protection package stalled by abrupt City Council adjournment

A midnight curfew on liquor sales has drawn the most attention. But the package also includes reforms and worker protections to help businesses and employees recover from the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.

Chicago skyline.
A package of reforms and changes intended to help businesses and employees recover from the pandemic is up for a vote in Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pandemic relief package — including a revised, midnight curfew on citywide liquor sales — was poised to sail through the City Council Wednesday to the cheers of a devastated, and still recovering, restaurant industry.

But the vote was derailed — and delayed until Friday — when the Council meeting descended into chaos before being adjourned.

“We are on a path to recovery. However, it’s gonna be a long, tough road ahead. Thousands of Chicago restaurants are struggling to find viable ways to fully reopen, attract talent, pay their debits, make rent, instill customer confidence, keep up with rising food costs and adjust to the new normal,” Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia told aldermen during the public comment section that precedes every Council meeting.

“The ChiBizStrong package … will immediately help small businesses reopen and recover. It includes crucial reforms that supports restaurants, bars, caterers and hospitality businesses. … Targeted grants, streamlined permits and licenses, allowing A-frame signage, assuring reasonable delivery fees and more will be hugely beneficial to neighborhood restaurants as they welcome diners and team members back.”

Toia noted many of the reforms were “successful measures adopted during the pandemic,” and “we are happy for these reforms to become permanent.”

Lightfoot avoided what would almost certainly have been her first City Council defeat by turning back the curfew clock — from 10 p.m. to midnight.

The extra two hours of liquor sales managed to appease aldermen concerned about the impact on businesses struggling to get back on their feet.

During a committee hearing last week, Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) was the only alderman to air any concerns about the curfew that would require liquor, grocery and convenience stores to cut off liquor sales at midnight. Sposato worried about businesses on the edge of the city losing sales to suburban businesses just across the street — but he still joined the majority in the 15-to-3 vote in support of Lightfoot’s ordinance.

Most debate has been centered around aldermanic prerogative, an issue that has divided Lightfoot and the Council since the mayor used her inauguration address to declare war on the longstanding tradition.

The mayor’s plan calls for shaving up to two months off the 150-day wait for business permits, signs and awnings by ending the longstanding practice of requiring a separate ordinance for each public way permit.

That tramples on aldermanic turf in a way that downtown Aldermen Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) simply cannot accept.

The mayor’s kitchen sink of a package also includes:

• Requiring third-party delivery services to collect and remit Chicago’s restaurant tax and extending the 15% cap on delivery fees until 180 days after all pandemic-related restrictions on restaurants are repealed.

• Authorizing both delivery and carryout of cocktails-to-go.

• Shaving up to three weeks from the time it takes for new restaurants to get licenses to open in spaces occupied by previously shuttered establishments.

• Relaxing restrictions on sidewalk sandwich boards and overhaul licensing and permitting to make it easier for restaurants to open.

• Extending the life of Chicago taxicabs from seven to 10 years for standard vehicles and from 10 to 15 years for fuel-efficient taxis.

• Eliminating barriers that have made it impossible for non-violent ex-offenders to drive public vehicles or enter the hospitality industry.

• A requirement that Chicago’s domestic employees be paid at least $15 an hour and get written contracts outlining hours and working conditions.

• A first-ever “wage-theft” ordinance to help Chicago’s most vulnerable workers recoup what City Hall pegs at “up to $400 million in wages stolen” from them every year by “bad-faith employers.”

• Clarifying Chicago’s minimum wage ordinance to ensure that chain businesses do not, as Escareno put it, “undercount their employees in order to pay a lower minimum wage.”

• Strengthening Chicago’s paid sick leave ordinance by allowing workers to take paid leave to care for family members if their school or place of care is closed. The revised ordinance would also cover mental and behavior health and “future public health orders.”

Escareno has pointed with pride to the minimum wage for domestic workers as proof of her claim that the worker protections will stimulate the Chicago economy.

“Bringing them to a $15 minimum wage. Bringing them to the forefront. Ensuring they have a contract in place when they’re working and making sure there are protections in there for them makes sure that the people who are trying to get back to work can go back to work,” she said.

The $15 minimum wage would apply to anyone employing a domestic worker, even if they clean your house just twice a month.

Escareno plans to mitigate that potential bureaucratic nightmare by posting a short-and-sweet one-page contract on her department website that homeowners can download.

City inspectors won’t knock on every door. But if housekeepers complain about a boss who isn’t paying at least $15-an-hour, their employer will be asked to produce the contract. They also run the risk of being fined.

“We need the domestic workers to feel valued and to be protected. They are among the most vulnerable employees,” Escareno has said.

“We want to make sure that there is a very simple contract where you say you’re getting the minimum wage and these are the conditions of work.”