Help wanted signs are typical sights throughout the country, and Freeport is no exception. Earlier this month, The Voice of Freeport shared a photo of a sign posted at Union Dairy. The sign read, “Sadly, due to government handouts, no one wants to work anymore. Therefore, we are short staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did choose to come to work today.” While the sign has since been removed, the controversy has not yet blown over. Why is that?
Last week, The Voice of Freeport shared that Union Dairy received $100,800 in PPP loans, which many other restaurants and small businesses received. Yet, the restaurant was quick to criticize individuals receiving a few extra hundred dollars in unemployment relief. It must have forgotten that it received $100,000 in “government handouts.”
It is not right for any business to whine about government handouts going to needy families, especially because they are the largest recipients of government handouts. Through tax cuts and government bailouts, businesses receive more government handouts than anyone else.
I reached out to some of the restaurant’s staff, who explained that most of Union Dairy’s employees are high school students. High school students do not even qualify for the “government handouts” that the restaurant argued were keeping people from working. Additionally, as the country has opened up for the first time in a year and a half, it is completely understandable that teenagers may feel less inclined to work summer jobs.
The worker shortage is not about “government handouts;” it is about businesses paying their employees low wages. Employers are not required to pay tipped employees Illinois’ minimum wage of $11.25 an hour; the tipped minimum wage is $6.60. Former Union Dairy employees shared with me that they usually walked away with less than thirty dollars in tips for shifts of at least four or five hours. “Thirty dollars was considered a good night,” said one former staff member.
In my conversations with the restaurant’s staff, I uncovered some troubling information about what it’s really like to work for the community-beloved restaurant. One employee shared with me that there are times in which he is not allowed to clock in for “an hour or two.” The staff member may be scheduled to work but may not be allowed to clock in if the restaurant is slow. He has been forced to wait until it gets busy before he was told to clock in and begin working. Other times, it may be so slow that he was sent home after waiting for an hour to start his shift. Another employee told me that she will usually have to wait thirty or forty-five minutes before clocking in or getting sent home, but there were times when she and her coworkers have waited two hours. Former staff members confirmed the same account.
One employee explained that the reason they have to wait to clock in is because the tips are pooled together and split evenly between servers and supervisors. Therefore, if there are fewer people working, each worker can take a larger proportion of the tips. If there are a lot of people working when the restaurant is slow, there will not be enough tip dollars to split between so many employees. If employees do not make enough in tips to equal minimum wage, Illinois requires employers to compensate for the remaining wages. Therefore, it is in the owner’s interest to ensure that the tips the workers make are enough to equal minimum wage. Otherwise, the deficit has to come from his pocket.
I reached out to the manager of the restaurant to comment on the policy, but have yet to hear a response.
While workers’ rights advocates should target large corporations and their worker exploitation abuses, that does not give small businesses an excuse to exploit their staff. This article is not designed to single out or attack a local business, but rather to provide an example of a struggle that workers all around the country face. While it is absolutely true that small businesses suffered as a result of the pandemic, we cannot forget that everyday working-class Americans suffered the most.