Mandela Barnes and Dave Heide
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, left, and chef Dave Heide, owner of Liliana's Restaurant and the future Little John's Kitchen in Fitchburg, speak Monday morning in favor of taking federal money to expand BadgerCare to 90,000 low-income Wisconsinites. (Photo by Christina Lieffinrg)

Cooks and servers want to return to work, but also want health care. Republicans have already said they plan to quickly gavel out a special session on BadgerCare expansion that Gov. Tony Evers called last week.

Given the high stress and low profit, small businesses—especially restaurants—are a labor of love. But after a global pandemic, some cooks and servers are wondering if they want to return to low paying jobs with no benefits. 

Chef Dave Heide of Liliana’s in Madison said that puts restaurateurs in a tough spot. 

“We’re struggling: trying to pay a living wage, trying to take care of our people, trying to offer benefits, trying to do all of those things,” Heide said. “And we also have consumers telling us constantly that they’re not willing to pay any more for their current dish or their current meal. And so what’s happened is small business owners, especially small restaurant owners, are making less and less and less profit every year because we’re trying our best to take care of our people.”

Heide was joined by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes at the home of Heide’s upcoming venture, Little John’s Kitchen, a pay-what-you-can restaurant that will also offer job training and services for veterans. The venture received national attention when Heide teamed up with 7-year-old Morgan Marsh-McGlone to feed the food-insecure during the pandemic.

Heide and Barnes were at a press event organized by the Main Street Alliance to beseech the Wisconsin Legislature on behalf of Wisconsin’s small businesses to accept the BadgerCare expansion at Tuesday’s special session. The special session, called by Gov. Tony Evers, is already doomed to fail, as Republicans who control both the Senate and Assembly have repeatedly and vehemently opposed the measure. The Legislature’s Republican leaders in a joint statement said they plan to quickly gavel out of the session, calling it “an unserious stunt.”

RELATED: Wisconsin Could Expand Healthcare and Get $1.6 Billion From the Feds. GOP Says ‘No.’

But the money Wisconsin stands to lose is serious. The American Rescue Plan economic stimulus bill increased the already-hefty incentive for states to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage for the working poor and others at risk of not having health insurance. In Wisconsin, BadgerCare, as Medicaid is known, would receive an additional $1.6 billion. Evers last week provided a nearly six-page list of specific programs and entities that would get extra funding to go along with the increased healthcare security for Wisconsin families.

“That is a signal that they don’t support people in this state,” Barnes said. “There are folks in districts all across Wisconsin–blue, red districts–that when it comes to health insurance, health care, health access, it’s not a partisan issue.”

Not only would BadgerCare expansion mean 90,000 Wisconsinites would qualify for health coverage, it would be a huge boost for small business owners struggling to pay their end of those benefits. It’s also a road block for anyone who wants to start a small business in Wisconsin.

“What’s happening is other states are becoming much more attractive for new business owners,” Barnes said. 

Heide pointed out that the current system gives bigger businesses an advantage over mom-and-pop operations because their size and easier access to credit makes them better able to adjust to rising wages and healthcare costs. 

He also pointed out that in his experience plenty of cooks and servers want to return to work. But they also want to have health care. Expanding BadgerCare would cut small businesses a break and their employees would be able to return to work and retain health coverage.

“Through COVID we’ve lost a huge amount of staff in our industry,” Heide said. “Our whole industry has been crippled by a lack of staff. And the main reason is they don’t have a way to go and get health care. They don’t have a way to get child care. They don’t have a way to afford any of the things that a lot of us take for granted.”

Given how popular BadgerCare expansion has polled, Barnes said that to gavel in and gavel out on Tuesday would be to “turn their backs on the majority of the people,” which they are able to do because their districts are gerrymandered and therefore they are not beholden to their constituents. 

“We can’t continue to play these political games,” Barnes said. “This is good for Wisconsin. It’s good for businesses. Good for families. It’s good for everything.”