CHICAGO — The unprecedented coronavirus shutdown has restaurant owners across the state scrambling to pay their employees. One Off Hospitality, a restaurant group that runs a number of high-profile spots in Chicago including Big Star, Avec and The Publican, has managed to raise more than $90,000 for its employees through an online relief fund.
But how that money will be divvied up is the subject of contention and confusion among employees. It’s just one of a few ways the owners have mishandled the shutdown, according to employees.
The owners, however, say they’re doing the best they can under difficult circumstances and they’ve even kicked in $180,000 extra to extend employees’ health insurance benefits.
One Off’s owners announced a full shutdown on March 28, saying its restaurants that had been open for delivery and carryout would no longer be offering those services.
“As the severity of COVID-19 continues to escalate in Chicago, we must prioritize the safety of our guests and our staff,” ownership wrote in a Facebook post.
But before that announcement, employees received a series of confusing emails from One Off’s “people services” team. Employees say the emails — and the policies outlined in them — made them feel lost at a time when they needed support and guidance the most.
“I’m very disappointed with how the company is handling it. I expected a lot more from one of the most successful groups in the city,” said one employee who declined to be named for fear of repercussions.
“It feels like they were immediately more concerned about the company and corporate than the smaller employees in all of the restaurants.”
Justin Wettstein, a former employee at One Off’s Cafe Cancale, also called the group’s handling of the shutdown “really disappointing.”
“They try to promote themselves as we’re this big family, we take care of our employees, people like working for us. And it’s really a giant corporation now,” Wettstein said. “They don’t have the interests of all of their workers in mind. They’re concerned with self-preservation.”
One Off, citing “increasing restrictions and mandates across the hospitality industry,” laid off all of its hourly employees via email March 20, according to emails shared with Block Club. The restaurant group has 700 employees across its 12 restaurants and bars.
In the email announcing the lay-offs, One Off essentially told employees they no longer had health insurance benefits.
“You will be receiving COBRA notification, which will have information about continuing your current health insurance coverage if you choose to take on the premium payments in full each month,” one of the emails reads.
One Off announced the cuts to health insurance the same day Gov. JB Pritzker announced the stay at home order.
“For a company that’s been in business for this long and is probably one of the most profitable in the city and has multi-millionaires as partners, we need to save on health insurance premiums?” Wettstein said.
The next day, One Off emailed employees again, apologizing for not “effectively delivering a clear message” in the last email.
One Off clarified that it would, in fact, be paying for hourly employees’ medical health insurance through April and that employees would be on their own starting May 1.
One Off also explained what to expect as far as relief and rehiring. The restaurant group said “as soon as the industry rebounds” and restaurants are able to safely reopen, the laid off workers will be “prioritized” in the hiring process and that they’re eligible, but not necessarily guaranteed money through the employee relief fund.
“You will be considered in this program and can anticipate receiving funds from these efforts,” the email reads.
Employees were struck by the emails — that they wouldn’t necessarily be rehired and they’d only be “considered” for relief.
“It makes me feel very replaceable,” one employee said.
One Off has since changed course on a few policies outlined in those early emails, but they’ve also introduced a new one that is causing even more of a stir.
The restaurant group is now paying for employees’ health insurance through May. A spokeswoman for One Off said the owners are using $11,000 in employee relief fund money and kicking in an extra $180,000 to make that happen.
But One Off is also using most of the employee relief fund money — about $80,000 — on Mariano’s gift cards for employees. Employees will receive different amounts, ranging from $100-300, depending on how many hours they worked in 2020.
The restaurant group asked employees to fill out a survey so the owners could determine who is “truly in need of financial assistance.”
“It’s a major misallocation of that money,” Wettstein said.
“There are many employees who work for One Off who don’t get health insurance. This is effectively saying to all of those people, ‘We don’t care that you need money to pay your rent.'”
Another former employee who declined to be named for fear of reprisal said employee relief fund donors were misled because the online fundraiser said it would be used to help staff — and didn’t say anything about grocery store gift cards.
“They’re not thinking of actual people, they’re thinking of what’s good for business. I’m wondering what kind of relationship [they have] with Mariano’s that it happened like that,” the employee said.
Wettstein also noted that not everyone lives close to a Mariano’s or can easily get to a Mariano’s.
Wettstein, who had worked for One Off for about a year, isn’t getting a Mariano’s gift card; he has health insurance and is getting unemployment benefits so One Off determined he’s not in need of the extra financial assistance. He said he’s worried about the food runners, the bar backs, the line cooks and the dish washers who don’t have health insurance and don’t qualify for unemployment benefits or federal aid.
“Those people are the backbone of this whole operation,” he said. “To not give cash to those people, to distribute Mariano’s gift cards to those people. It just blows my mind. It’s a really inadequate response.”
In an emailed statement, One Off CEO Karen Browne defended the restaurant group’s handling of the shutdown.
“Simply put, we are nothing without our hardworking team,” Browne said.
“Despite the number of external factors changing around us on a daily basis, we’re taking every measure available to rise to the challenge to do what’s best for all members of our staff. We founded this group on the principle of building a community, and we’re thankful for those who’ve recognized and supported our efforts.”
A spokeswoman for One Off said the restaurant group chose Mariano’s gift cards because the grocery store chain is one of the largest retailers in Chicago. She said the gift cards will be distributed Monday and Tuesday.
As for health insurance, the spokeswoman said One Off has committed to paying premiums for the duration of April and May and will “continue to review this policy while employees are unable to work during the state mandate with the intention to ease the financial burden that comes with the loss of healthcare coverage during this uncertain time.”
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
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