This week, the city slapped two big companies with nearly a million dollars in restitution and fines for violating the city’s sick leave law: Oreo maker Mondelez International and Tri City Foods, owner of dozens of Burger King franchises.
That effort was one of the final official acts for the outgoing commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which is charged with making sure businesses are properly licensed and following the law and protecting consumers from fraud.
“The goal for us is to ensure that employers across Chicago abide by Chicago’s labor laws,” said BACP Commissioner Rosa Escareño, who ends a 30-plus-year career with the city July 31. “We do a lot of work up front ... with employers and businesses across the city so that they fully understand. Our goal is not to be punitive; our goal is to ensure that all these great policies that are really helping workers and helping our economy are abided by.”
Escareño grew up in Mexico. Her father worked on farms and in factories in the United States and became ill and died during one of his visits home when she was young.
“My mother was left with a very difficult decision and chose – as my father had always wanted – for us to come to the United States,” Escareño said. “My mom was a widowed mother with six children … really searching for a better life.”
During her time in government, and particularly in her current role, Escareño says her mother’s tirelessness has been a motivator.
“She would wake up really early in the morning, have to be at work by 5 a.m. … standing up for about 30 years,” Escareño said. “Every time I go into my work, specifically around establishing policy, drafting legislation, everything dealing with workers, (I think about) not just my mom’s story. My mom’s story is replicated thousands and thousands of times. We saw a lot of this around the pandemic with our essential workers having to leave their families behind, putting themselves at risk so that they could keep our city open.”
Escareño cites the creation of BACP’s Office of Labor Standards as one of her proudest achievements. While she was originally planning only to stay for the first year of Mayor Lightfoot’s term, the pandemic delayed Escareño’s retirement plans – and gave her a firsthand seat to the massive blow COVID-19 dealt to the local economy.
“In this job over the last four years, I’ve gotten to know many small business owners. ... Many of those businesses were calling me directly, struggling, knowing that their life’s earnings were about to be lost,” Escareño said. “But I’ve also learned something about entrepreneurs. They are so vibrant. They don’t give up easily. They are fighters. I know Chicago’s economy is going to be even greater than we were before the pandemic.”