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Washtenaw County Labor Group Fundraises to Provide Relief to Restaurant Workers During the Holiday Season

The group aims to distribute the money to eligible food service workers in need on Tuesday, December 22

A photo of masked protesters from SIWA3 marching through the streets of Ann Arbor. Some hold signs reading “Servers, Not Servants.”
Members of SIWA3 march through the streets of Ann Arbor during a workers’ safety strike on Saturday, October 24.
Elise Brehob [Courtesy photo]
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Members of a Michigan food service workers group are organizing a fundraiser to benefit restaurant employees who’ve lost jobs or wages due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area (SIWA3) alongside International Workers of the World (IWW) is organizing the crowdfunding campaign with the hope of providing workers vital financial relief during the holiday season when many people are struggling with reduced unemployment benefits.

SIWA3 launched its Gofundme last week with the initial goal of raising $2,000 for service workers in Washtenaw County. Members hope to raise more with the expectation that the need is far greater than the initial $2,000. The group is more than half way to their goal.

Applications to receive money from the fund are scheduled to open on Friday, December 11, and close on Friday, December 18. In order to qualify, applicants must have worked in a bar, restaurant, or cafe in Washtenaw County within the last year, and are unsalaried wage workers that do not hold management positions. “This is the group we know is particularly suffering right now financially,” says Gabrielle Bussell, a Washtenaw County restaurant worker and representative for SIWA3. The group plans to distribute 100 percent of the funds raised to the applicants on Tuesday, December 22, to ensure that recipients have enough time to pay rent and bills, or purchase Christmas gifts for their families.

“Giving money to service workers right now is really pivotal,” Bussell says. Several factors are contributing to extreme hardship for many service workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, namely that the restaurant and bar industry has been disproportionately affected by partial shutdowns and closures due to the nature of dining. That’s been compounded by congress’s failure to pass a second round of COVID-19 relief. “Unemployment, as it is, is not enough for people to put food on the table,” she says.

While many people were able to get by with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), that guarantee an additional $600 per week through the CARES Act, that financial relief expired in July. Now, unemployed individuals in Michigan are expected to get by on only $362 per week. “The $362 a week has led many workers to food insecurity, the inability to pay bills and rent, and no money for Christmas presents for their children,” Bussell says, noting that she is one of the unemployed workers that is likely to lose benefits at the end of the month.

When speaking with members of SIWA3, the organization found that many workers were fearful that the would not have the money to get through the holidays or pay their rent. At the same time, eviction moratoriums are ending soon, as is student loan deferment, and any remaining CARES Act assistance is scheduled to expire on December 26, potentially making 12 million people in the United States immediately ineligible for jobless benefits.

This is far from the first action the labor group has taken this year in response to the challenges of the pandemic. SIWA3 was instrumental in organizing several demonstrations over the past year to draw attention to the plight of restaurant and bar staff, and the dangers they face working with the public during a health crisis.

Bussell says that of those that are still employed, many Washtenaw County workers are reporting issues with COVID-19 safety and enforcement and other challenges. Based on an informal survey of more than 200 workers conducted by the organization, roughly 19 percent of respondents reported experiencing some form of wage theft such as unpaid overtime, subtracting credit card fees from tips, and making less than minimum wage with tips without appropriate compensation. At least 10 individuals reported that their employer had refused to allow sick workers to go home — a violation of state COVID-19 rules.

The labor group’s organizers used the survey data to help develop a platform demanding better health and COVID-19 safety enforcement as well as urging businesses to create clearer policies around harassment and discrimination and its enforcement in the industry. The platform also addresses wage theft issues and the right to refuse service.

Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area Platform

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Holiday Fundraiser for Service Workers [SIWA3]