Portillo's workers organize for change

List of demands includes $15 minimum wage

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By Maria Maxham

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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Reader Comments

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William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 24th, 2019 8:30 AM

Uh huh. Happy holidays, JJ.

JJ Harrington  

Posted: December 23rd, 2019 2:02 PM

Dwyer,,you are incorrect. there is no OFFICIAL government mandated minimum wage of $16.60 in Denmark.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 17th, 2019 4:25 PM

For someone who so readily accuses others of pulling facts out of thin air, JJ, your own facts are demonstrably wrong. Denmark, for one. has around a $16.60 per hour minimum wage, and I believe other Scandinavian countries are higher than America's.

JJ Harrington  

Posted: December 17th, 2019 2:41 PM

First there are not any other countries in the world that have laws pertaining to fast food workers wages. The highest national min wage in the world is $14.50 in Australia. The $15.00/hr figure that's talked about the most here was pulled out of thin air by SEIU and not based on anything except that it sounded good. Nobopdy is sneering at working people but just because an activist makes accusations does not mean they are right.BTW a living wage is very subjective term.

Kris McCoy  

Posted: December 17th, 2019 2:24 PM

Good for these workers for standing up for themselves. And shame on anyone who sneers at an honest day's work.

Dion Ewald  

Posted: December 15th, 2019 10:36 PM

Mario, may I ask what YOU do for a living?

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 13th, 2019 4:20 PM

That's an odd statement, Mario, "I look forward to ordering from a kiosk." Should we assume you believe that Kiosk food is prepared by elves? And the kiosks stocked and serviced by food fairies? The Portillos are worth hundreds of millions of dollars because people value the flavor and freshness of their food. They designed and marketed a great fast food concept, but that concept is delivered to the public everyday by hard working individuals who just want their fair share.

Geoff Binns-Calvey  

Posted: December 12th, 2019 7:38 PM

Mario, maybe think of it this way. If you believe there are jobs that don't deserve a living wage, then you believe that there are people out there who don't deserve to earn enough money to live. We could fix all that if we equalized income disparity in this country. I'm not saying we flip the country on its head like communists, but when the top officials at Walmart are making $6,000 an hour, and the people who make that possible can't make enough to live on, something is wrong. Other countries have laws in place that give workers in fast food restaurants a living wage. We could do the same. We should do the same.

Mario Sanchez from Chicago  

Posted: December 10th, 2019 7:58 PM

Fast food is not a career. If they want to unionize go right ahead. I look forward to ordering from a kiosk. They are being paid what they are worth. If they were worth more they would work somewhere else, if the wages were too low, Portillo's couldn't staff the shifts.

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