LOGAN SQUARE — Laid-off restaurant workers set up a free coffee stand near the Logan Square Monument called the “Can’t Pay Cafe” on Wednesday, part of an effort to highlight the mounting financial crisis service industry workers are facing in the coronavirus pandemic.
The group that launched the cafe, called Chicago Restaurant Workers, is calling on the federal government to extend the extra $600-per-week unemployment benefits expired at the end of July.
Congress has failed to reach a deal and renew the payment program much to the disappointment of unemployed workers and workers rights advocates.
“If the benefits aren’t extended, people aren’t going to be able to pay rent, keep the lights on,” said Chris King, a furloughed Lula Cafe worker and a member of Chicago Restaurant Workers.
King said while Lula “has done a lot to help,” he’s been struggling to buy groceries and pay bills after losing his job at the Logan Square restaurant. He said so many Chicagoans are in the same position and need that extra $600 each week to stay afloat.
“Without these benefits, a lot of peoples’ lives are falling apart. The reality is the jobs aren’t going to come back. … tons of bars have been shutting down left and right,” King said.
King also said restaurant and bar workers who have gone back to work rely on tips that aren’t plentiful right now.
“People are getting $500 checks and tipping $0. It seems to be exacerbated with the pandemic,” he said.
In addition to handing out free coffee, canned goods and toiletries, King and the other laid-off and furloughed restaurant workers running the “Can’t Pay Cafe” asked those who came by on Wednesday to participate in a game.
The workers put out five buckets, each representing a basic cost: rent, utilities, car and so on. People were given $1,000 in Monopoly-style fake money and asked to dispense the money how they spend it and then see how much was left.
“The average Illinois worker makes a little over $1,000 a month and it’s a nightmare to try and live on,” King said.
The “Can’t Pay Cafe” was the group’s second action calling for an extension on extra unemployment benefits. The group protested Downtown about a month ago, King said.
King said his group plans to hold another action later this month if Congress doesn’t strike a deal soon.
“How are people going to live in Chicago? This is a rapidly gentrifying city. Rent is already tough enough to pay.”
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