Chicago pandemic relief package expected to sail through City Council

Chicago pandemic relief package expected to sail through City Council

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pandemic relief package — including a revised midnight curfew on packaged liquor sales and recall protections for laid-off hotel workers — is poised to sail through the City Council on Friday just days after being derailed by political chaos.

Aldermen were set to approve the kitchen sink of a package Wednesday when mayoral allies abruptly recessed the meeting after two aldermen moved to defer Lightfoot’s appointment of Corporation Counsel Celia Meza.

“As a result of their cynical actions, the City Council failed to pass protections and relief for our hotel workers, primarily Black and Brown women, who were most impacted by the pandemic and our small businesses,” Lightfoot said in a statement after the meeting Wednesday.

On Friday, everything is expected to be back on track.

Lightfoot avoided what would almost certainly have been her first City Council defeat by changing the curfew from 10 p.m. to midnight. The extra two hours of packaged liquor sales managed to appease aldermen concerned about the impact on businesses struggling to get back on their feet.

During a committee hearing last week, Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) was the only alderman to air any concerns about the curfew that would require liquor, grocery and convenience stores to cut off liquor sales at midnight.

And Sposato joined the majority in the 15-3 vote in support of Lightfoot’s ordinance.

“Being in a border ward, you know what’s gonna happen. … They’re gonna go right across the street and destroy our businesses, and we’re just gonna have vacancies left and right. Once again, we are punished, being a border ward. Being a safe community,” Sposato said then.

Most of the debate has been centered around aldermanic prerogative, an issue that has divided Lightfoot and the City Council since the mayor used her inauguration address to declare war on the tradition of aldermen controlling licensing, permitting and zoning in their wards.

The mayor’s plan calls for shaving up to two months off the 150-day wait for business permits, signs and awnings by ending the long-standing practice of requiring a separate ordinance for each public way permit.

That tramples on aldermanic turf in a way that downtown Aldermen Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) cannot accept.

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno has countered that Chicago is the “only city” in the nation that still requires full City Council approval for “something as basic as a sign.”

That is untenable as small businesses across the city struggle to get back on their feet and need to “bring in traffic and promote themselves.”

Also in the mayor’s sweeping relief package:

• Requiring third-party delivery services to collect and remit Chicago’s restaurant tax and extending the 15% cap on delivery fees until 180 days after all pandemic-related restrictions on restaurants are repealed.

• Authorizing delivery and carryout of to-go cocktails.

• Shaving up to three weeks from the time it takes for new restaurants to get licenses to open in spaces occupied by previously shuttered establishments.

• Relaxing restrictions on sidewalk sandwich boards and overhaul licensing and permitting to make it easier for restaurants to open.

• Extending the life of Chicago taxicabs from seven to 10 years for standard vehicles and from 10 to 15 years for fuel-efficient taxis.

• Eliminating barriers that have made it impossible for nonviolent ex-offenders to drive public vehicles or enter the hospitality industry.

• A requirement that Chicago’s domestic employees be paid at least $15 an hour and get written contracts outlining hours and working conditions.

• A first-ever “wage-theft” ordinance to help Chicago’s most vulnerable workers recoup what City Hall pegs at “up to $400 million in wages stolen” every year by “bad-faith employers.”

• Clarifying Chicago’s minimum wage ordinance to ensure that chain businesses do not, as Escareno put it, “undercount their employees in order to pay a lower minimum wage.”

• Strengthening Chicago’s paid sick leave ordinance by allowing workers to take paid leave to care for family members if their school or place of care is closed. The revised ordinance would also cover mental and behavioral health and “future public health orders.”

• A compromise “Right to Return to Work” ordinance requiring hotels to rehire employees laid off during the pandemic — or at least give them first crack at the openings.

Instead of giving laid-off employees 10 business days to decide whether to accept an offer to return to work, the right of refusal period was reduced to five business days.

The original version would have required Chicago hotels to rehire employees based on seniority, regardless of skills. The new version narrows that requirement to jobs in the same section.

The worker protections would remain in place until Dec. 31, 2023, at least three years earlier than the initial sunset. The final version also imposes a 15-day “curing period” that allows hotels charged with violating the ordinance to “make it right” before employees can file suit seeking relief.

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