In March 2020, Raeghn Draper was one of the many people furloughed from a hospitality job in Chicago. Draper was accustomed to the instability of the industry, but this time was different. The COVID-19 pandemic came at a time when food service workers were increasingly standing in solidarity against their employers; the furloughs brought to the surface feelings that had been brewing for years. What began as a “whisper network” of industry people and places to avoid because of worker mistreatment eventually transformed into a hospitality workers movement. Growing dialogues about Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements empowered workers to advocate for safety, stability, and accountability. With nearly everyone out of a job and nothing to lose, they organized.
Draper and fellow coworker Leah Ball crafted a letter to their employer, a local hotel. They asked for safety precautions and PPE, an increase in the hazard pay rate to $28 an hour, and acknowledgment of the interracial dynamics in their workplace. Half the employees signed the letter.
Before the pair submitted the letter, Draper’s employer had already put out a statement in support of Black Lives Matter and made a monetary commitment to a justice organization. Draper and their fellow employees used that as leverage in their letter. “Because if Black Lives Matter,” Draper tells me, “then you would do anything—you would actually protect your primarily Black and Brown staff by implementing these measures and by paying them a hazard pay.”
Ultimately their letter was met with “annoyance and concerns about an effort to unionize,” Draper says. The employer raised wages to $15 an hour instead of the requested $28 and implemented only some of the requested safety precautions.
Draper and Ball began searching social media for statements made by other establishments. As they were collecting this information, curiosity from other workers began to brew, and industry folks began asking for the information Draper was gathering.
In June 2020, Draper and Ball founded the CHAAD Project, which stands for Chicago Hospitality Accountable Advocacy Database. Because there were suddenly no jobs to be had, workers felt they had no reason to stay quiet about things they hadn’t publicized for years out of fear of retaliation—anything from working in a harmful or threatening environment to being fired to being blacklisted in the industry by the employer.
“The difference now, with working on the CHAAD Project, is that it doesn’t function as a whisper network anymore. Those grievances are coming out,” Draper says. “Folks are more comfortable speaking about abuse in their workplaces, either on platforms like CHAAD, through our network, or just taking it on social media themselves.”
The hospitality industry historically has played a part in facilitating and allowing problematic individuals to thrive. In the summer of 2020, the whisper network found an online community through sharing information. Social media accounts such as the @the86dlist gave hospitality workers a space to anonymously share their stories of injustice, racism, and abuse in their workplaces. In the wake of this movement, the CHAAD Project became a parallel effort, not to call out abusers by name but to provide information to hospitality workers about what systemic justice in the industry can and should look like. The CHAAD spreadsheet functioned as a diversity and business ethics database. It included what restaurants were (and were not) making statements and promises regarding Black Lives Matter, the racial and ethnic makeup of the staff, and whether they were BIPOC-owned.
Draper and Ball began by posting the information to their own personal Instagram accounts, sharing what they’d collected.
“It kind of blew up, which we did not expect,” Draper says. “But I think workers finally felt like, ‘Oh! This is a place where we can be heard, where our voice matters, where we have strength,’ and it was received really well.”
People began reaching out with interest in the movement. Many contributed information to the spreadsheet; some contributed their skills, like therapist Emily McCoy, who aided CHAAD with resources on mental health and trauma-informed care, and Molly Pachay, who contributed her community organizing skills.
“While being involved in the CHAAD project, I think my ability to advocate for myself dramatically changed,” says Pachay. “So now, for me, I know what I will and will not accept in a job. I know how to advocate for myself and also to talk to other people about how to advocate for themselves and give them tools for that.”
Soon, the CHAAD Project outgrew the spreadsheet, which had become too large to keep up-to-date, and became a direct-action organization. In spring 2022, more than 100 workers attended CHAAD’s workshops on microaggressions, stress and trauma, boundary setting, and identity in hospitality spaces.
“Folks really like the conversations that we’re starting, and sometimes that’s what a lot of it is: let’s just have conversations and raise awareness so that when we are confronted with these things, we have the language to talk about them and to set clear boundaries,” Draper says.
Pachay credits these workshops with helping hospitality workers better understand and express what they are experiencing and how it needs to change. “I’ve heard a lot of folks talk about how they feel a lot more comfortable setting boundaries now. Because they have the language to do so, and they know what some of their rights are in a workplace,” she says.
Community and love for the industry are at the heart of the CHAAD Project’s work. For hospitality workers who are looking to improve their work environment, CHAAD founders reinforce that a collective of workers are more powerful than an individual, and they recommend finding comrades in the workplace when attempting to make systemic changes.
Alongside the workshops, in fall 2022, CHAAD hosted a hospitality workers’ town hall in partnership with Studio ATAO (All Together at Once). Workers came together at employee-owned bar Beermiscuous in Lakeview to discuss and radically imagine what the future of accountability systems and sustainable systems based on mutuality could look like.
When asked if CHAAD would ever host a town hall or workshop for hospitality managers and owners, Pachay candidly explained the experience they’ve had in the last couple years. “I think once we get enough interest in management and ownership, we would develop more resources for them,” she says. “But in the handful of times when we reached out to groups or independent owners, we haven’t gotten the best response. They’re interested on a surface level, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, they don’t engage, and they just kind of drop off. . . . Essentially, folks were more focused on protecting their image than actually engaging with the content.”
Draper agrees: “We are the ones who started creating systems of mutual aid and support. It wasn’t our businesses that protected us. So, if owners or managers want to come along for the journey, they’re welcome, but we’re not doing this for them; we’re doing it for the workers.”
And yet, Pachay says, some employers are taking note of workers’ newfound power and voice, and several are trying to honor their demands. “Some owners are very desperate for resources, not just for healthy communication styles and how to create a nontoxic workplace. But basic stuff, like how can a very small business feasibly offer health insurance to employees when it is so wildly expensive,” she says. “I think a lot of this has started conversations [with members of] ownership who do want to do better by their workers, who do understand that longevity is very much dependent on their workers.”
The CHAAD Project
Briana Hestad, owner of Nordic-inspired brewery and restaurant Ørkenoy, is no stranger to traumatic and noninclusive experiences in the hospitality industry. She describes her time teaching beer courses in London, after studying brewing production in Denmark, as nothing short of sexist and discriminatory. “Just the amount of people that would be like, ‘Why are you teaching me?’ Those are some of the same people who go on to own their own breweries,” she says.
Ørkenoy pays their front-of-house workers—who do everything from serving to hosting and bartending—above the city’s minimum wage and has a 20 percent automatic gratuity in place. They offer health insurance to all employees who choose to enroll and aim to offer more benefits, including paid time off and a 401(k), in the upcoming years.
Hestad has been following the CHAAD Project over the years, learning from their educational content posted on Instagram, which currently has more than 5,000 followers. “I know what my team wants, but maybe they are also not telling me totally what they want. So maybe there’s some other answers here,” she says. In addition to the Illinois state mandatory sexual harassment training, Ørkenoy has implemented mandatory cultural competence training that covers unconscious bias, microaggressions, and body language. Hestad is also working with Pachay on an anonymous staff survey of her employees; CHAAD will analyze the results and provide Ørkenoy with recommended actions to take.
“Sometimes you need to step outside of yourself to kind of see things,” Hestad says. “You get so blinded by the day-to-day that you forget to think about . . . what can we do better to provide for our team, giving them the resources that they need. . . . It is difficult, both mentally and physically,” she says. “But those initial efforts are priceless if you want to have a successful space.”