On Nov. 21, Portillo’s workers, demanding a $15 minimum wage at all Illinois restaurants and other improved working conditions, held a rally and press conference outside the River North restaurant location on Ontario Street in Chicago. 

After speaking, a group of employees brought a petition inside the restaurant, but managers there refused to take it and asked the employees to leave. The petition was signed by over 600 employees from multiple Portillo’s locations, including Forest Park, and was brought to the Ontario Street location because it is the flagship restaurant.

This action follows many months of alleged mistreatment by Portillo’s management of employees. In fact, according to Mary Salas, a longtime employee of Portillo’s who spoke at the rally, conditions for employees within the organization have declined since Dick Portillo sold the company in 2018. 

“We want to improve Portillo’s,” said Salas during the press conference. “But the company that bought Portillo’s seems to not understand that what makes our restaurants fantastic is the people who work here. The people, the workers and the clients are the ones making Portillo’s fantastic and profitable.”

Over this past summer, Portillo’s employees met with Arise Chicago for help organizing to improve their working conditions.

Arise is a Chicago-based and faith-based organization that assists employees in organizing to demand better working conditions, recover lost wages and eradicate harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Formed in 1991 by a group of religious leaders, the goal was to address systemic poverty in the Chicago area.

Shelly Ruzicka, communications director at Arise, said that after Portillo’s workers reached out to the organization over the summer, Arise spent several months talking to them about their complaints and educating employees about their rights. The organization helped the employees form a workers committee to coordinate efforts and communication between different Portillo’s stores in Illinois, including the Forest Park location.

Together, Arise and Portillo’s employees came up with a list of 10 demands. In addition to the $15 hourly minimum wage at all Illinois locations, demands included eliminating the wage cap, establishing a seniority pay scale policy, lowering the costs that employees pay into health insurance, increasing the number of sick days, and improving the absence and rescheduling policy.

Unlike other fast-food restaurants with high turnover, Portillo’s has a lot of long-term employees. Many of them, including Salas, have worked for the company for over 10 years. They look at it as a career, not just a job, and they want to be compensated appropriately for the time they have been with the organization.

In September 2019, over a hundred workers brought the list of demands to corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, said Salas. Portillo’s response? They reportedly hired a high-paid consultant, whom the employees allege used threatening tactics to scare them into silence. 

According to Ruzicka, the consultant was “very highly paid” and used “immigration scare tactics” to intimidate workers.

As a result, the employees held the Nov. 21 rally and press conference at the flagship store in downtown Chicago. At the rally, Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise, said their organization was “inspired by these workers and how they have chosen to educate themselves about their rights.” 

A man at the rally held a sign in support of the Portillo’s employees. It read: “Intimidating your workers is worse than putting ketchup on your hotdog.”

As of publication, Portillo’s headquarters had not responded with comment on the situation.

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