Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday January 8th, 2014, 4:24pm

Fired Chicago Snarf's Workers Demand Back Pay, Reinstatement Of Jobs

   Snarf’s Sub Shop workers who were suddenly fired via email just days before Christmas from the River North location in Chicago say they want back pay and their jobs reinstated.

On Wednesday afternoon, the former sandwich shop workers and their supporters protested outside Snarf’s other Chicago location at Two Prudential Plaza, which is staying open, to also urge the company to "respect the rights of their employees to organize."

"We want to send a strong message that we're not going to tolerate this kind of unjust treatment of (Snarf's) employees," said Kevin Brown, 25, one of the fired sandwich makers from the River North restaurant who was paid $10 an hour. "We're going to fight until we make sure we get full back pay and fair treatment from Snarf's."

On December 22, the Denver-based sandwich chain told 14 of the River North employees in an email that they were fired, effective December 23, according to the Worker’s Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), which orchestrated Wednesday’s action. The restaurant, located at 600 W. Chicago Ave., was closing “for an unknown period of time” for “remodeling and reconcepting,” according to the email signed by Snarf’s Director of Operations Doug Besant.

Lillian Henehan, 25, a former Snarf's River North assistant manager of more than two years who made $11.50 an hour, said she and her colleagues want the company's officials to know that "they can't get away" with their recent actions.

"Ultimately, this is bigger than Snarf's," she added. "This is bigger than me. This is bigger than my coworkers. Right now, this is a story about what happens to people who stand up and make their voice heard, and I want to change the narrative in this country."

On its website, Snarf’s says the River North location, which will reportedly be converted into one of its burger-concept chains, will reopen “in early 2014.” The change at the restaurant comes in response to “increased competition and losses,” the email to workers stated. Those who were fired will be able to reapply for their jobs when the location reopens, a company spokeswoman told ChicagoGrid.com last month.

Additionally, the email told workers that they could apply for unemployment, if eligible, and to “keep an eye out for the grand opening of the new store.”

“Ownership appreciates your service and wish you well in your new endeavors,” the email concluded.

The 14 Snarf’s employees received their pink slips just weeks after many hit the picket lines with other fast food and retail workers in Chicago during a national day of strikes to demand a pay of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. WOCC coordinated the Chicago retail and fast food worker strikes.

The restaurant chain maintains that the firings were not in response to the recent strike, which caused the River North location to temporarily close from December 5 through December 8.

“During the Christmas holiday we’re pretty slow,” Jill Preston, Snarf's director of marketing, told Chicago Grid last month after employees received their termination email. “The restaurant’s usually three quarters closed. This does happen to coincide, but this is something we’ve had planned for awhile.”

On December 23, WOCC members protested the “unfair” terminations outside both Snarf’s locations in Chicago, calling on the company to re-hire the fired workers and provide them with furlough pay. In response to local and national media attention as well as public backlash over the firings, Jim Seidel, the CEO and owner of Snarf’s, wrote a public apology on Snarf’s Facebook on December 24, saying the company had acted “rashly” and that the terminated workers would receive an additional week of wages. Here is Seidel’s full statement:

I am very remorseful for the way we handled our recent restaurant closure at 600 West in Chicago. It was insensitive and poorly planned. By explanation, rather than excuse, business was suffering and we felt the need to act quickly to begin efforts to re-concept the store. We recognize now we acted rashly. For this, we apologize to our employees and to our loyal customers who we know we’ve disappointed. This was not handled in a way that met our own standards for quality and kindness. We’ve learned from this mistake and will not be so insensitive again. For now, as a token of our apology and in the holiday spirit, we will be providing impacted employees an additional week of wages. Again, we are deeply sorry.

A direct apology to the River North Snarf’s employees was sent two days later via email, the former workers said. Those at Wednesday's action said the fired workers have not yet received the promised wages for the hours that they would have worked the week they were fired. Workers have not heard from the company since its CEO sent the apology email, the organizers said.

Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, attended Wednesday's protest, explaining that "thousands of religious leaders and hundreds of thousands of congregants" are "outraged as to what these workers have had to go through."

"Right now,  they are being asked to snarf down indignity and injustice," she said. "We invite the company to come out [and] publicly apologize to these workers, reinstate them and give them full back pay and to establish a living wage for all of them."

Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia also backs the fired Snarf's workers. He issued a statement Wednesday in support of the employees and "their fight for fair compensation and reinstatement after having been dismissed so cavalierly from their work a few days before Christmas."

"Employers cannot retaliate against employees who seek to better their lot by engaging in organizing activities for a decent living wage," Garcia continued. "But this is part of a larger conversation that we must have about the haves and the have-nots."

Kait Ziegler, 26, another fired Snarf's sandwich maker who earned $9.50 an hour, said she and her colleagues had a very personalized rapport with the sub shop's customers, and "it's just unfortunate that corporate didn't recognize that at all."

"After we were fired in December, over 150 reviews were written from customers [of the] 600 West [Chicago Ave. restaurant]. Bad reviews that were stating their disappointment and disbelief at the mass firings," said Ziegler, who worked at Snarf's for two-and-a-half years.

A Snarf's representative could not be reached for comment by deadline.

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