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Mayor touts $935K in restitution for workers deprived of sick leave by two food companies — one at center of Burke scandal

Tri-City Foods will pay a $100,000 fine, the largest the city has imposed for violating its labor laws. The investigation was triggered by an anonymous 311 complaint from a “brave essential worker,” as Mayor Lori Lightfoot put it.

Chicago City Hall
A settlement has been reached to reimburse thousands of workers for sick time they are owed.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has won $935,000 in restitution for nearly 3,000 employees deprived of paid sick leave by two food companies, one of which is at the center of the corruption scandal that culminated in the indictment of Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

On Thursday, Lightfoot announced Tri-City Foods had failed to grant paid sick leave to 2,473 employees at 40 Burger King locations in Chicago from July 2017 through November 2020.

Tri-City’s CEO is Shoukat Dhanani, whose $10,000 electronic donation to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — allegedly muscled by Burke — helped sink Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign against Lightfoot.

Last week, the city’s Office of Labor Standards reached a settlement agreement with Tri-City, calling for the company to pay $458,931 in restitution to employees forced to either drag themselves to work even when they were sick or stay home without pay.

Tri-City Foods also agreed to pay a $100,000 fine, the largest the city has imposed for violating its expanding labor laws. The investigation was triggered by a 311 complaint filed anonymously by a “brave essential worker,” as the mayor put it.

In a similar case, food manufacturing giant Mondelez International, formerly known as Kraft Foods, was accused of failing to provide mandatory sick leave to 465 employees from July 2017 to early 2020.

Its settlement agreement calls for the company to pay $476,083 in restitution to shortchanged employees and a $95,217 fine to the city.

The city “opted to seek a lower than maximum fine” because Mondelez offered a “plausible defense,” cooperated fully with the city’s investigation and took “immediate action to correct” the violation.

The company claimed it “sought to bargain in good faith” with the employees’ union over implementing paid sick leave when its local labor contract expired. (Unilaterally implementing paid sick leave after the contract had expired could have been seen as a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, according to the company.)

The violation was corrected “by early 2020,” paving the way for “proper sick leave” to be provided to essential workers during the pandemic, the city said.

Later Monday, Mondelez issued a statement, saying in part that “we did not violate any Chicago labor laws during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In 2016, the City Council approved a landmark paid sick leave ordinance over the strenuous objections of business groups.

It requires Chicago employers large and small — with the exception of construction companies — to provide employees with at least five paid sick days each year or one hour of guaranteed sick leave for every 40 hours worked.

In announcing the settlements, Lightfoot made no mention of the politics as she touted the city’s role as champion for the working stiff.

“It’s hard to be a worker that isn’t in a union shop. That is scrambling to make sure that you can make ends meet. That’s living from paycheck to paycheck and putting together multiple jobs,” the mayor said.

“I know this personally. That is the life that my parents lived their entire working life. I feel this deeply. … So I want to say on behalf of the city and as your mayor, we will always be here for you. We will always make sure … that you will be able to take care of your families. And that you are part of our economic recovery. Pure and simple.”

Retiring Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno said she “could not be more proud to end my journey” with the city with the announcement about helping working families like her own.

“A mom who had been widowed with six children waking up every single day at 5 in the morning to head on her walk to work a couple miles out because she needed her job to support her family,” Escareno said.

“For me … this is personal. This is about making sure that we’re doing everything to support our working families who have children to raise and food that they have to put on the table.”

Andy Fox, director of the Office of Labor Standards, said businesses need to get the message: Compliance with Chicago’s “toughest-in-the-nation” labor laws is “not optional.”

“During the pandemic, these essential fast-food, front-line workers working in cramped conditions weren’t able to take sick days, to care for their families, to stay at home to protect themselves and others. Or worse. They stayed at home and weren’t paid,” Fox said.

Lightfoot’s campaign was languishing in the single digits until Jan. 3, 2019, when the first round of federal charges were filed against Burke.

The Preckwinkle campaign said she knew nothing about the alleged shakedown and returned the $10,000 contribution because it exceeded legal limits.

Preckwinkle tried desperately to distance herself from Burke — returning the money she raised at his house and using her position as Cook County Democratic Party chair to strip Burke of his role as head of judicial slate-making.

It didn’t work. In Round Two, Lightfoot swept all 50 wards, in large part because she had no ties to Burke — and is, in fact, a longtime adversary.