Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareño has packed up her desk and is leaving City Hall today after 30 years in public service. On her way out, she urged businesses to implement mask and vaccination policies for the sake of their customers and workers, previewed a city study on wages and working conditions for ride hailing drivers, and talked about her own future in politics.
Escareño’s department was a key agency during the city’s coronavirus pandemic – cracking down on bars and restaurants that flouted city regulations and helping businesses navigate aid programs and changing protocols. She had only planned to stay in Lightfoot’s administration for a year, but stayed on longer when COVID hit.
As she exits, the city announced fines on big businesses that violated paid sick leave laws she helped implement, raised the minimum wage for domestic workers, and passed a package of business regulations designed to help COVID recovery. BACP’s First Deputy Commissioner Kenneth Meyer will serve as Acting Commissioner beginning in August.
How many businesses do you think are gone for good?
The Illinois Restaurant Association says about 20 percent went under. We don’t know how many of those are coming back.
In licensing, we either issue a license or have people renew the license. On average, annually, about ten percent don’t renew a license. We were pleasantly surprised to see since the pandemic that about 75 percent, almost 80 percent have continued to renew. We know that there’s a gap there. What does that say to us? It says that some people are not renewing, but it could mean that people are operating, just not renewing because they don’t have that cash on hand. It could also mean that they’re gone for good.
What is the biggest challenge for this next commissioner coming in?
The pandemic is still here. How do we continue to keep our businesses open and focused on keeping their employees and the consumers safe? Not letting up on the gas pedal of keeping our businesses engaged. There were almost 40 changes in regulations (during the pandemic)…
Probably more to come.
Exactly. My goal is that if we can get the unvaccinated vaccinated… I mean, right now is an opportunity for businesses to be thinking about their policies. How do I want to come back, and how do I want my employees to come back? They are part of the solution of keeping us safer.
Crain’s own editorial board said employers should mandate their employees get vaccinated. Do you think that’s something businesses around Chicago should pursue?
I think businesses should think, what is my business model? And do I have employees that are coming into the office? Our centers are open, everybody must wear a mask. [Ed. note: The city is negotiating with unions about a vaccination mandate.] Businesses have an opportunity here to think about the future and how they want to protect their workers, and do they want to protect the consumers? What is the best way to maneuver through the biggest crisis in our recent history? I think they have the solution. Certainly these are business decisions they have to make, but why not? It could certainly help us address the unvaccinated.
Do you have a position on Ald. Brendan Reilly’s ordinance on ride hailing – caps on surge pricing and wage protections for drivers?
On the cap, one of the things that we in Chicago have always been very proud of is the diversity and availability of modes of transportation. Ride hail is not the only game in town. They are part of a much larger marketplace and we should really take a look at what is happening right now: We’re coming out of a pandemic. Are we trying to fix a problem that is a temporary problem? Where are we going to be six months from now and even a year from now, and does [a surge cap] make sense? I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. But I do think reacting to something – a change in the marketplace that is so recent coming out of this pandemic – we should study that a little bit more.
When you look at ride hail, house share, meal delivery concepts, it’s a really interesting time. In government, cities that think about how to embrace those and build regulation that allows the marketplace to continue to thrive, while at the same time addressing the consumer and treating their workers well, is the future. Cities have to step in and provide comprehensible, rational and reasonable regulation in order to build strong economies.
It is part of a movement among drivers to have some assurances of the wages they’re going to be paid. Fair labor practices have been an expanded part of what this office does – we’ve seen in California, efforts to unionize or organize ride hailing drivers. Is that something the administration would support in general?
This has definitely been on the mayor’s radar, on our radar. As the mayor in 2019 indicated, we were going to be doing a driver and industry study to determine not just the wages, but to look at the conditions of drivers and the industry as a whole. We’ve been working through that study, we’re almost all the way done with it, we have a couple more weeks or so before that study is done.
Are drivers living in poverty? Are their earnings under the minimum wage? We’ve been driving a lot of the policy initiatives around minimum wage, fair workweek, paid sick leave, and many of the changes during the pandemic to protect workers. For us, building a strong worker economy where workers feel valued and feel like Chicago is a place to go work is good for business, right? It’d be great to have Chicago be known as the city of workers.
You’re one of very few Latinas in power in Illinois. How has your feeling about your position of power changed during your time in government? Has it become easier to be a woman in government than when you began?
I have always seen my job in public service as looking back at my family. Whether it’s coming through those doors to get a license – are we making sure we have the right language? My mom worked in a factory for many years – are we looking out for the workers? The perspective of diversity is really important to government. I hope the diversity as a Latina has made me a stronger public servant.
[As for being a woman in government,] I think it’s very different than what you see in the private sector. If you look at government and the diversity of government and roles in government, it’s very different than the private sector. Would I have had the same opportunity in the private sector? I don’t know, but I think the data suggests that I would not.
What’s next? Is politics in your future?
What’s next is vacation. I’m going to spend some time with my family.
What’s next is a little bit of a blank slate. This has been a really tough year. Hopefully this pandemic will be behind us soon. I love my city, I want to be an active participant – whether it’s as a consumer, a resident or a volunteer doing something fun. If something comes along, maybe I’ll entertain it, but it’ll have to be something to do with building up versus tearing down.
[Politics] is a very difficult job. Public service is in my blood, I just want to think about a future where I can give back. I haven’t had an opportunity to think about it, but I know that I love working with people and I love this city. Whatever I can do to make it better, stronger, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and say bring it on.