BUENOS AIRES -- Since the owners of Empire Pizzeria abandoned ship last October, its employees have kept the 32-year-old institution afloat amid a heavy debt load.

According to the Associated Press, the crew of 30 workers chose entrepreneurship over unemployment amid a four-year recession, whose end is nowhere in sight. Twenty-two percent of the country's workers are without jobs, and half live in poverty, but Empire's cooks and servers aren't among them.

"If we were not running the business, we would be out on the street," said Luis Pinilla, a server there for 26 years. "Most of us are over 50 and no employer wants someone our age."

Since Oct. 1, Pinilla has been president of the cooperative, paying overdue salaries, four years of back rent and settling debts. The pizzeria is one of about 100 bankrupt Argentine businesses now in the hands of workers after the original owners bailed out.

Jose Abelli, a former meat packer, has united these companies into a single organization, the 2-year-old National Movement of Rescued Businesses.

"We did not plan on becoming entrepreneurs, but we were left with no other option," said Abelli, the organization's secretary.

The businesses provide employment to 10,000 Argentines in a dismal job market. Although small compared to the country's 15 million-strong labor force, its supporters believe the movement is a start to ending the economic crisis and rebuilding the country.

The government has even passed laws giving employees legal rights to control the businesses either through cooperatives or under the state's ownership. It also provides small- and medium-business loans and technical assistance. Empire Pizzeria will soon receive a $17,000 loan to help the cooperative reorganize and possibly expand to a different location within the neighborhood.

Such help has sparked optimism in Empire's workers, not only about the fate of the pizzeria but the country's future.

"We are doing well here at the pizzeria," said Enrique Lobo, a 48-year-old bartender. "We and the country are much better than six months ago."

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