As a heat wave took over Chicago this week, with temperatures reaching well over 95 degrees on several occasions, workers at a downtown Dunkin’ Donuts were forced to work without air conditioning since Sunday.
On Thursday, tired of being forced to sweat it out, three workers walked out on strike, locking the doors of the 24-hour location behind them as they left. The Dunkin Donuts location, which has a broken air conditioner, was closed for eight hours.
“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” said Luis Vargas, 21, an employee of Dunkin’ Donuts for five months and one of the workers who walked out. “If we didn’t drink any liquids I’m pretty sure me and my coworkers would have passed out.”
The store’s thermostat hit 99 degrees when the workers walked off the job.
Backed by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), Vargas and his colleagues are refusing to go back to work until the air conditioning is functioning again. The union, which is helping minimum wage workers across the city fight for higher wages and better working conditions, hosted a rally outside the Dunkin’ Donuts, at 27 West Lake St., Friday morning.
“Minimum wage workers have to sacrifice a lot,” said Vargas, one of nearly 20 people protesting outside of the franchise on Friday, which also happened to be his birthday. “We work in horrible conditions, with horrible hours and horrible pay, but all the corporation is worried about is profits.”
Vargas added that he notified management about the broken air conditioner every day leading up to the strike. Vargas, who makes $8.25 per hour, said he was instructed to open the doors and step outside, during the hottest week of 2013, to cool off.
“They don’t care about us,” he said. “Even if they’re waiting for a new part, they could have brought in fans or done something more immediate."
The alleged mistreatment by management that Vargas describes is not unique to Dunkin’ Donuts, according to Deivid Rojas, communications director for WOCC.
“There is a pattern of disrespect in the minimum wage industry,” he said. “Workers shouldn’t have to put up with unsafe working conditions, low wages or disrespectful managers."
On April 24, the union organized a massive citywide food and retail worker strike that resulted in hundreds of workers walking off the job. The workers campaigned for a wage of $15 per hour, an amount the union claims is enough to cover employees' basic needs, such as food and rent.
The request for $15 per hour isn’t unreasonable, according to Lorraine Chavez, outreach coordinator for WOCC.
“In fact, studies have shown workers need more than $17 to survive in this city,” she said. “Our demands are actually pretty modest and conservative. Workers deserve respect on the job, safe working conditions, and a salary that is in keeping with what countless studies and experts regard as a minimum living wage in the city of Chicago."
Chavez said big corporations bring in sizeable profits because they “exploit” minimum wage workers.
“Minimum wages qualify workers for food stamps and other taxpayer-funded services,” she said. “Taxpayers are subsidizing profits of large corporations which refuse to pay living wages or provide quality working conditions, but the [corporations] can clearly afford it.”
Meanwhile, Joan Richard, a supervisor at the Dunkin’ Donuts location in question, said a replacement part for the faulty air conditioning is en route.
“We understand the hardship they are going through, but we are working on it,” she said. “The part will ship in five to six business days.”
Vargas said five to six days is unacceptable, adding that the workers still inside the restaurant will continue to struggle to provide good service in the sweltering heat.
“I was literally dripping beads of sweat on the counter while I was talking to customers,” he said. “I was miserable, the customers were uncomfortable, and I just can’t understand how they expect people to work like that.”
UPDATE 1 (1:47 p.m.): Here's more from today's protest: