Strike vote looms for concession workers at Chicago's United Center; regulators investigating allegations of labor law violations

  • In Business
  • 2023-01-30 18:12:00Z
  • By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - Jamie O'Neill has worked at the United Center for more than three decades, managing a concessions stand at the home of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks.

In the offseason, O'Neill, 60, works at Wrigley Field. She doesn't qualify for health insurance from her employer, Chicago-based food service provider Levy. On her feet much of the time, O'Neill has struggled with a foot issue she let go untreated for five years because she did not have insurance.

"It just progressively got worse, causing me more surgeries and more pain and more problems," said O'Neill, who now pays for private insurance. "Having a foot problem working on our feet is a big burden."

O'Neill is one of about 650 concessions, food and beverage workers at the United Center who will vote Tuesday on whether to strike amid union contract negotiations with Levy.

The employees work in positions including food preparation and concessions, bartending and dishwashing during Bulls and Blackhawks games and other United Center events, such as Disney On Ice. Last month, workers filed a slew of complaints with city, state and federal agencies alleging a range of labor law violations by Levy at United Center. Those complaints remain under investigation.

According to union representatives at Unite Here Local 1, the United Center workers have been working without a contract since their collective bargaining agreement expired in September. Workers told the Tribune that access to health insurance was top of mind as the strike vote approaches, describing a system in which some employees receive insurance sporadically and others don't get it at all.

Dan Abraham, organizing director for Unite Here Local 1, described access to health insurance as a convoluted system in which a set of about 150 employees who work the most hours each year are given health insurance for a period of months depending on the number of hours they've worked. Employees say meeting the minimum number of required hours can be difficult.

Levy workers like O'Neill can't add hours they've worked at the United Center with hours worked at other venues, including Wrigley Field, in order to qualify for insurance, Abraham said. But workers who are employed by Levy at Navy Pier are able to add together hours they've worked at venues such as conventions or hotels in order to qualify for insurance, he said. United Center workers said they are seeking the same access to benefits available to other people employed by Levy.

Founded in 1978, Levy provides food and beverage in sports and entertainment venues around the country, including at the United Center and both Wrigley and Guaranteed Rate fields. The company has a minority interest in Boka Restaurant Group, which includes well-known Chicago restaurants such as Girl & the Goat and GT Prime.

Levy did not answer questions about workers' access to health insurance.

"We value our team members and are committed to the bargaining process with Unite Here Local 1," the company said in a statement.

On the subject of wages, Levy said "the union and Levy mutually agreed to extend the current agreement, which includes wages, during the pandemic. Bargaining has since resumed and we are optimistic that we will reach a fair agreement."

If a majority of workers vote to strike, a work stoppage could begin any time after the vote, Abraham said. In a statement, Levy said "plans" would be in place to continue the sale of food and beverage during events at the United Center in the event of a strike but offered no details.

The Bulls are scheduled to square off against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, with more games to follow next week. The United Center is also scheduled to host Blackhawks games, a concert in honor of former Secretary of State Jesse White and performances by SZA and Adam Sandler in coming weeks.

In addition to better access to health insurance, United Center workers are seeking higher pay. They have not received any raises other than required increases to the minimum wage since January 2020, Abraham said.

Claudia Trujillo has worked at the United Center for 22 years and makes $15.40 an hour - Chicago's minimum wage - preparing salads for people who watch games from the United Center's suites.

Trujillo has health insurance now, but her access to benefits is spotty, she said: sometimes she has insurance for a period of months, and sometimes she doesn't.

"It's because of this that we're in the fight to be treated with equality," she said in Spanish. "Insurance, and other benefits that other workers have."

In December, Levy workers at the United Center filed a slew of complaints alleging violations of labor law with the city's Office of Labor Standards, the state department of labor and the National Labor Relations Board. They alleged four dishwashers at the United Center had worked for 35 days straight in violation of the state's One Day Rest in Seven Act.

Levy workers and Unite Here also alleged violations of the city's Fair Workweek Ordinance, claiming Levy changed workers' schedules without proper notice, and of federal labor law, alleging retaliation against union activists and surveillance of employees who spoke out about conditions of employment.

Spokespeople for the labor agencies confirmed the complaints remained under investigation.

"We are currently responding to those claims, as we take all complaints very seriously," Levy said in a statement. "The well-being of our team members and continued compliance with the law are our top priorities."

The United Center did not answer questions about contingency plans if workers strike. In a statement, it said the United Center "maintains a very strong relationship with multiple service and trade unions."

"We are paying close attention to the matter, and we are in constant dialogue with our contractor as it relates to this issue," the United Center said.

O'Neill said she's prepared to be on strike for "as long as it takes to get our voices heard."

"That's why we're having this strike vote," she said. "Because we want to be heard."


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