America’s local communities deserve a voice on the Hill
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Our country is experiencing a moment of economic turbulence with proposed tariffs, a fluctuating stock market and talk of trade wars with China. Yet, while those issues rightly dominate the headlines, America’s restaurant industry—the nation’s second-largest private sector employer—continues to be a driving force behind our economy. Restaurants are the backbone of local communities and represent 4 percent of America’s GDP, while nearly 90 percent are small businesses. However, without action in Congress on four policy priorities— immigration, health care, taxes and misuse of the Americans with Disabilities Act—many of the small and locally-owned businesses that make up our industry will struggle to keep up the current pace of job creation and economic growth.

Nearly 15 million Americans work in the industry – the vast majority of them in local restaurants with fewer than 50 employees. The decisions made in Washington have real implications for the people that make up our industry, from the community college students trying to balance starting a career with obtaining a higher education to the small business owner trying to open her first restaurant.

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Take immigration reform for example, it’s an issue where policymakers don’t seem to truly understand its impact on local economies. Over the next decade, restaurants will likely create more jobs than the U.S.-born workforce can fill. Restaurant employers need a viable option for providing temporary workers visas, and a consistent, national standard that helps them to hire in a timely, effective and respectful manner.

While our industry continues to grow, it is crucial that we have sensible and compassionate steps to immigration reform. The Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 3711) creates a pathway requiring every U.S. employer to use an electronic employment eligibility verification system to confirm work eligibility of all future hires. With legislation that enforces consistent employment practices and new visa options for immigrants, American restaurants will be able to expand their workforce and contribute to the nation’s economic growth.

Just as every American deserves the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families, every American also deserves quality, affordable health care. However, since its enactment, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has created a myriad of issues for the restaurant industry and our employees.

For example, the ACA defines a full-time employee as someone who averages 30 hours of work per week over a month. Reducing the standard 40-hour work week has raised administrative costs by forcing to hire more human resource staff and/or purchasing software to track information.  Operators have had to make operational changes, including the added time, money and resources spent by restaurant operators have not improved the quality of health insurance they can offer their employees and often discourages restaurants from expanding. Congress needs to fix this.

Restaurants are high-traffic businesses with facilities that can be regularly affected by wear and tear. Under current law, tax deductions for facility improvements must happen on a 39-year depreciation schedule. However, restaurant operators typically remodel, upgrade, or renovate every six to eight years. We need a bipartisan fix on tax reform policies that allow restaurant operators to deduct the cost of building improvements and new construction on a decreased 15-year depreciation schedule as previous law stated.

As an industry, we strive to create welcoming, enjoyable dining experiences for every customer. Restaurants and other businesses covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) make earnest efforts to bring their facilities into compliance with the ADA, but recent abuses of the law by bad actors have created unnecessary challenges for restaurant owners. Lately, the number of lawsuits filed under the ADA has surged – often without merit – where plaintiffs are filing dozens or even hundreds of frivolous lawsuits that undermine the integrity of the law and hurt restaurant operators who often lack the resources to combat them. That is why restaurant operators support the ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620), which proposes a more effective solution for addressing alleged ADA violations through a “notice and cure” provision. If passed, this proposed solution would prevent well-intentioned restaurant owners from being victimized by abusive lawsuits and foster greater compliance with the ADA.  

Restaurants are part of the fabric of America. We are present in every single community and in every congressional district. Our people – both employees and customers – are our priority and they benefit when restaurants can grow and thrive. Our grassroots network of almost 15 million will continue to share our concerns with members of Congress and remind them of the industry’s collective success as not just a national economic driver, but as the backbone of our local communities.

Jay Stieber is Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Restaurant Association and Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.