“600 Words by Esther J. Cepeda”
These fine people who nourish and cater to your dining needs – whether they be teenage girls from Wilmette, middle-aged immigrants from El Salvador, or your next door neighbor whose husband left her to fend for herself and her kids – these fine people have it rough.
Like a $2.13 Federal minimum wage for servers who make tips, rough.
Like no basic job benefits such as “paid time off,” rough.
And folks – even for the people who are just thankful to even have a job in this economy, that’s pretty damned rough.
Oliva, a 36-year-old Policy Coordinator with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, is working to change that.
“Most people think that all restaurant workers make the well-known federal minimum wage and have sick and personal days, but they definitely don’t,” Oliva told me. “They have the Federal Family Medical Leave Act, which is extended un-paid time off, but if the President says ‘stay home if you don’t feel well’ in response to a Swine Flu epidemic, well, that’s just not an option.”
A Guatemala native who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13, Oliva is working on two major pieces of legislation, the Healthy Families Act, which would require businesses with 15 or more employees to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave each year. And an increase in the Federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 (Illinois’ is a more robust $4.65, but still).
“It’s been 18 years since this dollar amount was set and the real egregious part of it is that this group has been literally singled out,” Oliva said. “It just doesn’t make any sense, there’s no reason for it to stay the same for almost 20 years.”
And it’s a pretty big group. Oliva says Chicago has the second largest number of restaurant workers in the country, over 250,000 (only Los Angeles has more) and, of course, one of the largest Latino immigrant communities in the country. “However, neither have direct, full and democratic representation in the economic and political life of our country,” Oliva says.
“The influence of the National Restaurant Association as a lobby, for instance, is about the 17th most influential in Congress (according to Forbes Magazine). Meanwhile restaurant workers have no one to speak to their issues and advocate on their behalf. This holds special weight when you factor in that most restaurant workers are immigrants in Chicago and that immigrants have a similar handicap in as far as voice in DC is concerned.”
Well, those particular restaurant workers have Jose Oliva. And he’s doing two things:
1) He’s working on re-establishing a memorandum of understanding on immigration enforcement so no immigration raids would occur at a worksite where the employees were already engaged in any other activity – like a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against their employer – “so an employer can’t just call for a raid to get rid of the problem workers and then suffer no ramifications even though he was the one breaking the law in the workplace.”
2) He’s educating workers on their rights, and on how to band together to help each other fight for better working conditions and more opportunities.
“In essence what we need to do is to demystify the legislative process, we need to make sure ordinary people who go to work feel they have a voice in government or in the companies where they work,” Oliva says. “The only way they can have that voice is to band together on common issues and that voice is magnified only if you take it to the power and speak in unison.”
His legislative action sensibility is what sets him apart from others who focus just on the workplace organizing – not that Oliva is a slouch in that department, he trained at the Organizing Institute at Midwest Academy with Jackie Kendall a nationally-known trainer now known for her work with President Obama.
“I methodically and scientifically gather workers’ stories for national reports and take it to DC,” Oliva said. “We’re not a union, not just a community organization, we’re a hybrid. We don’t just do rallies in DC, we do both and we’re trying to become a pioneer for organizations treading a new path.”
“All workers are interconnected,” Oliva said. “So to the extent you raise the conditions in one place, others follow and raise their wages and conditions. That’s how capitalism works. You have to raise wages; that teenager in Des Moines, Iowa will be positively affected by our work across the country, not just Chicago.”
“Chicago Latino List 2009” was generously sponsored by the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Chicago White Sox, and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Restaurants. All nominees were independently nominated for this recognition; their rejection and/or selection to “Chicago Latino List 2009” was not, in any way, influenced by any disclosed or undisclosed personal or professional proximity to Esther J. Cepeda or to any sponsor of “Chicago Latino List 2009”.
Esther J. Cepeda writes the "600 Words" & "Pregunta del Dia" columns, and is also the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. Her views and reporting do not necessarily reflect those of ISAC. "600 words" is a registered trademark of EeJayCee, Inc., Copyright 2008. May be reprinted with permission, contact firstname.lastname@example.org