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Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations are pouring in to hospitality nonprofits and grassroots fundraisers to help laid-off service workers across the country due to the coronavirus outbreak, but organizations say they're overwhelmed with requests and cannot come close to meeting the need.
“We’re seeing thousands upon thousands of applicants,” said Kim Haasarud, vice president of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG), whose foundation offers small financial grants to bartenders in need. "It's unprecedented."
Bryan Schroeder, executive director of Giving Kitchen, an organization that provides financial assistance to food workers in Georgia, said over 1,000 people have filled out requests for assistance in the last week.
Giving Kitchen had previously anticipated 3,000 to 4,000 requests for all of 2020.
"I am just running with both feet on the ground and in the air and all around," said Sheila Bennett, the executive director of Children of Restaurant Employees (CORE), which pays rent and utilities to restaurant workers in times of crisis. "I am so busy I don't have time to be depressed. I'm so busy I don't have time to be overwhelmed."
There are only a few nonprofits aimed at hospitality workers, a workforce that often does not receive benefits such as health insurance or sick leave. The few that exist are often locally based or very specifically aimed at only certain workers in the industry.
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The USBG foundation, which only supports bartenders or servers of alcohol, launched its financial assistance program in 2015. It offers small financial grants — the maximum is $2,500 — for bartenders who find themselves in financial need, such as long-term unemployment due to a natural disaster or illness.
This week they launched a page on their site for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. When Washington announced bar closures on March 15, applications began to “trickle in,” said Haasarud. “Then it started to become a flood.”
Donations have also poured in. Whiskey brand Jameson donated $500,000 to the foundation on St. Patrick's Day — traditionally a huge money-earner for bars and bartenders — and promised to match personal donations for another $100,000.
Liquor brand Screwball Whiskey donated $100,000, and Singani 63, owned by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (ironically, the director of the 2011 film Contagion) has donated $25,000.
Other personal donations have poured in, including $100,000 from billionaire Mark Cuban. “I'm a former longtime bartender. I just wanted to help,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Haasarud said she expects payments for bartenders who lost their jobs from the coronavirus shutdowns — it will take several weeks for applications to be gone through — to be in the $150 to $500 range.
“For COVID-19, there are lots of requests for people [saying], ‘I lost work for last week, I need to get groceries,’” Haasarud said.
“What is particularly scary for me is that bartenders, a lot of them live hand to mouth,” Haasarud added. "A lot of them do not have a huge safety net. A lot of them do not have insurance."
CORE has also received an influx of donations, including being one of three organizations that split a $1 million donation from Patrón Tequila.
"To date, it's the largest donation we’ve ever received — by a significant amount," said Bennett, the group's executive director.
But the organization is limited on who can apply for funding — "we realized early on that COVI-19 was going to be bigger than CORE," she said.
Any food or beverage employee who is confirmed to have COVID-19, or who lives in the home of someone who has been diagnosed with the illness, and is therefore in isolation, can apply for a CORE grant.
Schroeder from Georgia's Giving Kitchen also said the organization quickly realized the huge job losses across the state were way beyond their capability of helping food service workers with grants.
"This is a hundreds-of-million-dollars issue," said Schroeder, whose organization was awarded a prestigious James Beard award last year for their work in the industry. "If we try and address this, we would fail so spectacularly, we would fail to continue the other stuff we’re supposed to do."
People are launching GoFundMe fundraisers for local bars or calling on customers to send money to a Venmo to be distributed among staff, but the money is nowhere near an actual living wage.
"Love it or hate it, at this point, the only system in the United States who can help food services workers unemployed at the level we’re seeing is the state and federal government," he added.
Three New York City hospitality workers — Anna Dunn, 39, Kelly Sullivan, 28, and Seamus Branch, 23 — met for lunch last Thursday and decided to put together a fundraiser called Service Workers Coalition to help their networks struggling with lost work because of the pandemic.
But they didn't expect that within just a few days, they'd also be out of their jobs.
The idea was that they would raise $500 to $2,000. Instead, they've received more than $35,000, approved 65 donations, and have 100 volunteers offering to help.
Dunn also said the emails they are getting from people in need of money are “overwhelming” — undocumented families who suddenly cannot afford food and don't have a bank account, workers who can't afford groceries, people unable to leave an abusive partner. Others fearful they will lose their apartments.
The plan is to allocate a $50 weekly grocery stipend for applicants. But suddenly running a fundraiser with thousands of people in need is daunting.
Venmo does not let them to withdraw more than $3,000 per day. They've had to set up a bank account and figure out other ways to transfer money. They tried buying Visa gift cards to send people, but Amazon canceled the order, and CVS limits how many gift cards can be purchased at once.
"Everything has six problems attached to it," Dunn said.
“This shouldn’t be our responsibility,” Branch added. “It is a little insane that the ones trying to get people food are three restaurant kids, it is not a good look for the country.”
They want the government to step in more, immediately.
“All three of us have to file for unemployment this week,” Branch said, pointing out that the New York State unemployment site keeps crashing. "It would be nice just to be worrying about that.”
He noted that most donations are in the $5 to $20 range and often seem to be coming from people who work in the industry.
“This industry has always looked out for each other and a crisis doesn’t change that,” Branch said. “But the government has never looked out for us, and a crisis doesn’t change that."