Affected workers seek aid during COVID-19

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Among the hardest hit were those working in restaurants and other service industries, many of whom counted on those funds as their primary source of income. Photo by iStock

As restaurant servers, bartenders, and service and entertainment industry workers have been hit hard during COVID-19, nonprofits and employers are mobilizing to help, and aid funds are popping up across the country — but organizers say much more is needed.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 16 issued an executive order temporarily closing Michigan’s restaurants, cafes, bars, taverns, brewpubs and distilleries (except for takeout and delivery); as well as clubs; movie theaters; indoor and outdoor performance venues; gyms, fitness, sports and recreation centers; spas; and casinos until at least March 30 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. She then issued a stay-at-home executive order that began on March 24 for all “nonessential workers” that will be in place through April 13.

The orders impacted thousands upon thousands of Michigan workers either via reduced hours, temporary layoffs or loss of contracts.

Some local food establishments chose to stay open for takeout and delivery, while some closed immediately. Still others stayed open for takeout and delivery for a few days before closing when they realized operating costs would exceed revenue.

Brendan Blackwell was a full-time server at Logan’s Roadhouse in Grandville when the order to close dining in at 3 p.m. Monday, March 16, was announced. 

Before that, the restaurant had been taking heightened safety and sanitation precautions, cleaning multiple times per day. Every time a guest left, the table and area in which they sat was bleached, and employees bleached the whole store at the end of every night.

“We took all of these precautions, just to be closed down anyway,” Blackwell told the Business Journal on March 20.

Prior to the restaurant’s closure, Blackwell had been working 40 to 60 hours per week. He is now out of a job until further notice.

“It was my sole income,” Blackwell said. He added he has not found leads on another job he can get with no college degree, especially while factories are freezing hiring due to the pandemic.

Lindsey Katerberg was a part-time server at Logan’s alongside Blackwell who also temporarily lost that job due to the closure.

That gig made up about 25% of her income. The rest came from the entertainment industry, which also has been shut down for the foreseeable future.

As a contractor with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE Local 26 in Grand Rapids), Katerberg has an agent who negotiates her contracts and distributes work. Before the pandemic, Katerberg had 11 different employers she was contracted with — including for venue management companies such as SMG, where she assisted with productions and concerts.

She had just completed working on 10 performances of the 24-stop Broadway “Lion King” tour in Indiana when the show was abruptly suspended on March 12.

On the drive home to Grand Rapids, talking on the phone with her agent about what other gigs she could do, she was told “literally everything” was canceled.

Katerberg worked one more shift at Logan’s the Friday before the closure, and she helped load out the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” performance that was closing at DeVos Place on Saturday, March 14, and then that was it.

As of press time, she was waiting to hear back from Amazon after applying for a job at the new fulfillment center in Caledonia. She also was selling off swag and memorabilia from shows, doing odd jobs for family and friends, applying to Costco and Meijer, and had submitted an application to the IATSE Actors’ Fund for relief to displaced stage workers. IATSE on Tuesday, March 17, made $2.5 million available across three charitable funds for its union members.

Several regional and national efforts have launched to offer aid to affected workers. Nick Britsky, of NickDrinks.com, a Michigan beverage industry news site, set up a website called Go Tip Em, at gotipem.com, which allows people to tip bartenders across the country through mobile payment systems.

The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation established the RWCF COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, at bit.ly/RWCFcovid19, which is taking donations for workers, nonprofits serving workers and zero-interest loans for restaurants.

One Fair Wage (OFW), a lobbying campaign established in 2013 as a project of the Seattle-based nonprofit Alliance for a Just Society to “fight unjust sub-minimum wages in America,” on the weekend of March 14-15 set up the Emergency Coronavirus Tipped and Service Worker Support Fund at ofwemergencyfund.org.

As of Thursday, March 19, the fund had raised $100,000 for emergency cash assistance to restaurant workers, delivery drivers and other tipped and service workers impacted by the pandemic.

Saru Jayaraman, OFW president, said that amount needs to increase exponentially so the organization can help the deluge of workers who have signed up to receive assistance — which she projected would be about 100,000 people by March 22.

“We’re hoping to raise as much money as possible to give as many workers as possible cash assistance of $213,” Jayaraman said. “We chose that amount as a nod to the horrific $2.13 federal sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.”

Jayaraman noted in addition to supporting the OFW emergency fund, the organization is calling on Americans to demand the federal government and every state end the sub-minimum wage and adopt One Fair Wage — not just in this crisis, but permanently. 

“Over the last couple of weeks, it has become so painfully clear why we were calling for getting rid of that sub-minimum wage of $2, (because it) was not sustainable and is not tenable,” she said.

“Now, everybody hopefully can see the results, which is that you’ve got the nation’s largest and fastest growing industry — more than 13 million workers — living tip to mouth … and then on Friday (March 13), devastation hit, millions of workers were laid off, and their tips on Friday they used to feed their kids on Saturday, and come Monday, they had nothing to feed their kids.”

Applicants for OFW emergency assistance are screened for eligibility in phone interviews, and funds are distributed to those with the highest need through the Alliance for a Just Society. Any unused funds will be spent on tipped worker organizing and advocacy.

Jayaraman said she and her team are currently lobbying Congress and governor’s offices in multiple states to grant unemployment insurance benefits to tipped workers based on a minimum wage of $15 rather than a wage of $2.13 plus tips, which is how most states currently distribute benefits.

She said unemployment insurance pays a percentage of workers’ wages, so in the case of tipped workers, they receive a fraction of an already sub-minimum “starvation” wage.

OFW also is fighting for tax relief and rent abatement for employers that commit to switching to a living-wage model starting a year after the COVID-19 crisis, as an incentive to move to a more sustainable system of compensation.

Jayaraman said in addition to donations, OFW is seeking volunteers.

“We’re building an army of a thousand or more volunteers to help do the screening calls so that we can get to everybody on the list,” she said.

People can sign up to volunteer at ofwemergencyfund.org/volunteer.

Locally, restaurants are trying to do their part to help affected workers during the crisis.

According to a report from Business Journal sister publication GRMag.com on March 20, Grand Rapids Garage Bar & Grill owners Max Benedict, Dave Levitt, Brad Rosely and Kevin Farhat launched an initiative called Garage Bar Cares that is offering 100 free takeout meals per day to downsized workers.

Individuals who were downsized or temporarily laid off from their jobs can call the bar at (616) 454-0321 with their name and order and select their pick-up time. Guests can order any item off the menu for each person in their household, up to four people, with a limit of one order per day. Orders are then available for pick-up at the bar, at 819 Ottawa Ave. NW.

Sponsors for the initiative include Mercantile Bank, Pioneer Construction, Car City, Custer Office/Century Flooring, EatGR, Leadco and an anonymous family. Other folks who wish to join the effort can call the bar.

Anna’s House, though it announced on March 17 it was shutting down all eight of its locations until March 31 and would not be offering carry-out, said it would provide transition pay to its 355 team members until it reopened.

“The safety and health of our team and our guests is our top priority, and we want to do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Josh Beckett, Anna’s House CEO.

Anna’s House also planned to distribute about $80,000 worth of perishable food to team members and their families during the closure.

The economic development organization Lakeshore Advantage reported to the Business Journal on March 19 that Zeeland-based Plascore, which makes cleanroom structures, decided to solve its need for increased sanitation by hiring laid-off restaurant workers in the area who would have sanitation compliance experience.

“When Plascore recognized (its) need for increased sanitation in (its) facilities in response to virus spread mitigation, they reached out to a few local restaurants and hired a team of 15 waiters/waitresses who had been furloughed or laid off to be their ‘clean team,’” said Emily Staley, vice president of marketing and communications for Lakeshore Advantage.

“These new full-time Plascore employees are now working 40 hours a week and making $14 per hour. They clean all facilities top to bottom every day and cover all three production shifts.”

Jennifer Owens, president of Lakeshore Advantage, said this is just one of several stories Lakeshore Advantage has heard from the region’s employers about how they are helping during the crisis.

“We continue to hear stories like this that demonstrate resiliency and creative thinking, and these characteristics rise to the top here, even in challenging times.”

More Grand Rapids Business Journal coverage on COVID-19 and its impacts is available at bit.ly/grbjCOVID19.

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