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Washtenaw County Restaurant Workers Rally to Draw Attention to Lapsed Unemployment Benefits, Evictions

Organizers are demanding that lawmakers reinstate the $600 pandemic checks

A demonstrator wearing a red bandanna over his face and aviator sunglasses holds up a fist and a flier reading Mitch Better Have My Money at a rally demanding the extension of CARES Act jobless benefits in Washington, D.C.
Protesters gathered in July in Washington, D.C. to demand the extension of CARES Act jobless benefits that many unemployed people in the U.S. were relying on to cover expenses during the pandemic.
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Members of Michigan food industry are planning a Tuesday, September 1, demonstration outside of U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell’s office to draw attention to economic hardships unemployed workers are facing during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area (SIWA3) is organizing the Michigan protest as part of a nationwide action focused on the lapsed $600-per-week in federal unemployment benefits, evictions, and healthcare. The group is also pushing for lawmakers to extend benefits to U.S. residents, regardless of their immigration status.

Huron Valley Democratic Socialists of America, Ypsilanti Industrial Workers of the World, Ann Arbor Tenant’s Union, and Michigan People’s Defense League are co-sponsoring the event with SIWA3. Organizers will gather at Dingell’s office at 301 West Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The groups are demanding that lawmakers extend the $600 benefit, suspend evictions, expand jobless benefits to anyone regardless of their immigration status, and enact Medicare for All.

It’s just the latest in a series of actions being taken by restaurant workers aligned with the Restaurant Organizing Project, a group that’s pushing for labor union organizing in the industry. Groups have held similar actions in Austin, Dallas, and Denver throughout the summer. The Ypsilanti event will be the first local event organized by SIWA3.

Kimberly Anderson is an Ann Arbor-based bartender and server helping organized Tuesday’s action. She and a group of service industry employees established SIWA3 as a Facebook group shortly after the pandemic struck Michigan, sickening thousands of people and forcing the temporary closure of bar and restaurant dining rooms. Anderson says that the group was initially established to help laid off workers, but evolved to encompass more activism. “We’re trying to make things better for service industry workers,” she says.

In June, the group created a petition to get Washtenaw County to close restaurants for dine-in service due to COVID-19 safety concerns. “We still believe that dine-in service should be shut down until COVID is no longer a public health threat,” she says. “We are not essential workers. I don’t think it’s an essential thing for someone to dine inside of a restaurant.”

With over 25 years of experience working in the industry, Anderson says she’s very familiar with the issues facing service staff. “Anyone that’s been in this industry can tell you that there are a lot of things wrong with it. Most of us don’t have health care, most of us have gone to work sick for fear of losing our jobs if we don’t. Most of us have been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace,” she says. The pandemic has exacerbated those problems. “We’re treated as if we’re disposable human beings, and so we feel like now is the time — with things in flux in the industry — that we could make some changes for the better.”

Many out-of-work people in the service industry relied on the $600-a-week in extra benefits guaranteed by the CARES Act to help cover their bills and pay for food during a frightening time. Those benefits expired in July and the federal government has failed to sign off on an agreement to provide more coronavirus relief. At the same time, the Trump administration has issued a relatively toothless executive order extending $400 in unemployment aid.

Anderson says that many service industry workers aren’t currently bringing in enough money to pay their rent or afford basic necessities. “A lot of us don’t have jobs anymore, and the ones that do aren’t making enough money to survive,” she says. She says she’s only working three shifts a week and currently is barely breaking even. “It’s costing me money to go to work every day,” she says, adding that returning to dine-in service with customers that don’t necessarily take mask use and social distancing seriously has been frightening. People also aren’t tipping the way they used to. As college students have returned to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti for classes this fall, service workers now fear that young people partying in large groups will cause more outbreaks. “You’re going to work and putting yourself and your family in danger for a few customers that aren’t tipping well,” she says.

Many restaurant workers already lived below the poverty line prior to the pandemic and few had access to health insurance. The service industry also employs a significant number of undocumented workers, who do not have access to unemployment benefits. That’s led to higher numbers of food industry employees relying on food pantries.

“I think we’re all just kind of terrified,” Anderson says. “The moratorium on the evictions has ended as well, so there are a lot of people wondering how they’re going to pay their rent. Some of us had the ability to put some of that [stimulus] money away, and hopefully it can pay the bills for another month.” She adds, “The state unemployment at $300 a week is not enough money to survive.”

Organizers expect more than 50 people to turn out for the event and Anderson says they’re hoping for more concrete action from lawmakers. “I think that our group really would like to see organizing in the workplace, and, ultimately, a service industry workers’ union.”

“We would like to see everyone taken care of,” Anderson says. “We’re going to work hard to make things better for people in our industry.”

Don’t Starve, Fight!: Unemployed Workers National Day of Action [SIWA3]
Washtenaw County Restaurant Industry Workers Campaign to Keep Dining Rooms Closed [ED]
Austin Restaurant Workers Rally to Demand an Extension of $600 Unemployment Pandemic Checks [EA]
Congress Needs to Extend the $600 Pandemic Checks — Here’s Why [ENY]
Dallas Restaurant Workers Will Protest to Demand Extension of Federal Unemployment Benefits [EDFW]

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