Former Signature Room workers protest restaurant’s abrupt closure, seek back pay: ‘We are not going to stand for it’

Chicago
By Chicago 8 Min Read

Jesus Abe Lar worked at the Signature Room long before it was the Signature Room.

For 46 years, Abe Lar served as a bartender in the restaurant at the top of the former John Hancock Center, greeting customers who would come back year after year, traveling from across the country, always coming to him because he made “the good drinks.”

After the Signature Room closed permanently last week without giving its workers notice, Unite Here Local 1, the union representing the 132 former restaurant workers, filed a lawsuit Monday asking for back pay, health insurance coverage, and other benefits and relief.

“I’m very sad because I really need money. I have a mortgage, I have to pay my car [note], ” Abe Lar said. “I cross my fingers, I talk to my God: ‘God, please, I’m a good guy, I’m working hard. Please help me.’”

Abe Lar was among 60 former Signature Room workers who protested outside 875 N. Michigan Ave. Wednesday. The restaurant’s failure to give workers 60 days of warning before the closure violates state law, according to Unite Here Local 1.

Jesus Abe Lar and other Signature Room employees and union workers protest and hold signs.

Jesus Abe Lar, 66, who bartended at the lounge atop the old John Hancock Center even before it was known as the Signature Room, joins other union workers in a protest of the restaurant’s abrupt closing last week.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, known as the WARN Act, employers with at least 75 full-time workers must provide notice 60 days before a single work site closes. The law also requires workers to be provided certain benefits for 60 days after their termination.

Workers said they were notified of the closure at about 6 a.m. Thursday, when the restaurant announced its permanent closure. They received a paycheck the next day and are supposed to receive one more next week.

The restaurant’s owners, Richard Roman and Nick Pyknis, shared news of the abrupt closure in a letter posted on the elevator bay citing “severe economic hardship.”

“For over 30 years, we have had the privilege and honor of serving Chicagoans and visitors from all over the world. Unfortunately, after the closure of our city and restaurant due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been faced with severe economic hardship and the challenges have been greater than anticipated.”

Related
  • Signature Room operator violated law on worker layoff notices, union says in lawsuit

Samantha Frederick, a cocktail waitress who worked at the Signature Room for 10 years, said it was “hard to articulate” how she’s been feeling since the restaurant closed.

“I woke up in the morning to 108 text messages and three emails saying that we were closed,” Frederick, 40, said. “It brought tears to my eyes, after a couple of minutes. I was in shock.”

Frederick wasn’t the only worker who felt emotional about the closure.

Nina Hernandez speaks during a news conference as other former Signature Room workers hold protest signs.

Nina Hernandez, a former server at the Signature Room who worked there for 18 years, speaks during a news conference Wednesday with other workers represented by Unite Here Local 1 after the restaurant’s abrupt closing last week.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Nina Hernandez, who worked as a server at the Signature Room for 18 years, said the experience has been painful.

“I was completely floored. We all were,” Hernandez said at the rally. “It really hurt to be so blindsided. It has been so disorienting. By closing without any notice, they robbed us of the opportunity to say goodbye.” 

She said returning guests often remembered her and her co-workers from past visits, which was “a big source of pride” for them, adding that if a new restaurant opens in the space, the workers should be brought back.

“When I was first hired, my son was 4 months old. Today, he’s 18,” she said. “I’m a single mom, and because of this job, I was able to raise my son and take care of my family.” 

Martin Torres, 53, worked as a line cook at the Signature Room for five years. He said he felt “lost” when he heard the restaurant had closed, and is scared about not being able to support his household.

On the morning of the restaurant closure, Torres woke up to a phone call.

“It was a co-worker saying did I hear what happened, that the Signature Room closed. And I’m like, ‘For what, a couple of days? What happened?’ And he’s like, ‘A couple of days? It’s not a couple of days, it’s like forever.’ I said BS,” Torres said.

Torres said he was looking for new jobs and trying to apply for unemployment, but with expenses always going up, he’s worried.

Speaking in Spanish with a Unite Here Local 1 translator at the rally, Carlos Aguinaga, a cook at the Signature Room, said he worried about paying bills and his daughter’s college expenses. 

“I went to work like normal on Sept. 28, but when I arrived, my key card didn’t work,” Aguinaga said. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw the note posted on the door that we couldn’t enter because the Signature Room had closed its doors.”

Aguinaga worked at the Signature Room for 25 years, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up. He said the closure was shocking because everything the day before seemed normal, and they even prepared for upcoming events, including a wedding.

Karen Kent, Unite Here Local 1 president, said the union would pursue “every avenue” available to ensure workers receive the pay and benefits owed by the restaurant.

“The callous disregard that they have shown of workers is a disgrace, and it is shameful,” Kent said. “We are not going to stand for it.”

Former Signature Room workers listen and hold protest signs as Karen Kent, president of Unite Here Local 1, speaks during a news conference.

Former Signature Room workers listen as Karen Kent, president of Unite Here Local 1, speaks during a protest Wednesday outside 875 N. Michigan Ave. on the Magnificent Mile. The union alleges the restaurant’s operator failed to give 132 workers adequate notice of their job losses before abruptly closing last week.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ex-Signature Room workers hold signs as they protest.

Ex-Signature Room workers represented by Unite Here Local 1 protest after a news conference Wednesday outside 875 N. Michigan Ave.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Carlos Aguinaga speaks during a news conference as he and other Signature Room ex-workers hold protest signs.

Carlos Aguinaga, a former cook at the Signature Room who worked at the restaurant for 25 years, speaks during a news conference Wednesday with other workers represented by Unite Here Local 1.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Former Signature Room workers protest after a news conference outside the John Hancock Center.

Former Signature Room workers represented by Unite Here Local 1 protest after a news conference Wednesday outside the former John Hancock Center on the Magnificent Mile.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Two former Signature Room workers hug after a protest and news conference.

Two former Signature Room workers represented by Unite Here Local 1 hug after a protest and news conference Wednesday outside 875 N. Michigan Ave.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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