Take City Winery, for example. Two former employees told VICE that they didn’t get any severance when they were laid off, although one of them has continuing health care from the company as of now. They’re both able to file for unemployment, but states have recently been strained by the influx of claims. (Both requested anonymity given that City Winery has promised to re-employ its workers once they reopen.) So far, the company’s GoFundMe has only raised a little over $31,000 of their $250,000 goal.One of them, a former manager, said that they understood why City Winery had to lay people off. And when the GoFundMe was created, both employees were initially grateful. But when they saw that Michael Dorf, the company’s CEO, and Anum Ganju, the company’s CPO, had only donated $250 each to the fund, they felt shocked and deflated.“I understand where they’re coming from, but they offered us nothing,” the former employee told VICE.For his own part, Dorf told VICE that he’s selling his own shares in the company to keep the 74 people left on payroll and City Winery afloat. “I’m diluting my ownership in order to pay staff to stay and cover their bills so we can try and survive,” Dorf said, asserting that he’s not a millionaire with cash on hand. “I don’t know what more anyone can do.” He framed the GoFundMe as a gesture to allow customers who love the brand to offer some support, and a small part of what he’s trying to do overall for his employees. “Ninety percent of the support we’re spending is coming from us,” Dorf said.
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City Winery's circumstances are an example of the tricky situation that many businesses are now finding themselves in: Low-level staff take the biggest hit and are rightfully upset that they only have a GoFundMe as a lifeline, while executives scramble to keep the company alive so that they can ostensibly reopen and rehire. While there's no comparing the situation of someone working a service job and a company's CEO, the lack of a safety net screws everyone.But during this crisis, a pattern has emerged of wealthier people or larger corporations shifting the responsibility of their employees’ welfare to crowdfunding. Amazon, a company worth nearly $1 trillion and run by the richest man in the world, is only offering two weeks of paid sick leave to employees if they test positive for coronavirus or are placed in quarantine. For its contract workers—who work at fulfillment centers and deliver packages—the company launched a separate relief fund. Contractors who are diagnosed with coronavirus can apply to the fund for sick leave. While Amazon seeded $25 million into the fund, it’s also soliciting individual donations.Amid backlash, Amazon reportedly amended its solicitation for the fund to say that “they don’t expect anyone” to donate—but didn't change its sick leave policy.Over the weekend, celebrity chef Bobby Flay organized a GoFundMe to cover employees that were laid off at his restaurants. He promised to personally match $100,000, a gesture that seems more generous if you don’t consider that’s what the wealthy Flay can reportedly make from a single public appearance. Other restaurateurs have also had to close their doors. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group laid off 2,000 workers last Wednesday, writing in a statement that “in the absence of income, restaurants simply cannot pay our non-working team members for more than a short period of time without becoming insolvent. In that scenario, no one wins.” Meyer also noted that they couldn't rely "simply on the generosity of our community alone" and called on the government to provide “a full emergency relief package for restaurant and bar workers.”
“I understand where they’re coming from, but they offered us nothing,” a recently laid-off employee said.
At its best, GoFundMe can seem reflective of mutual aid, a long-standing organizational tactic for people to help each other as equals to meet their immediate survival needs. A number of such grassroots networks have sprung up since the pandemic began, with neighbors buying groceries or getting medication directly for each other. As Dean Spade, law professor at Seattle University and creator of the mutual aid fund Big Door Brigade, recently explained on Democracy Now, the concept of mutual aid is rooted in solidarity, where people are trying to help each other under a system that has purposefully left them out. This differs from charity, where “usually money’s coming from the rich, and they get to determine who is deserving.”But amidst the flood of campaigns, it’s also easy to forget GoFundMe is neither a mutual aid platform nor even an altruistic one—it’s a for-profit company. While GoFundMe no longer takes a 5 percent fee from campaigns, it offers donors the option of giving the company a tip with their donation. The tip is automatically set at 15 percent, unless users opt out. In 2015, when the founders agreed to sell a controlling position of the company to an investors group, it was valued at $600 million.In the end, though, GoFundMe is a symptom, not the cause, of the economy that we’ve built. Since the 1980s, the 400 richest Americans have tripled their share of the nation’s wealth, now owning more than the bottom 60 percent of Americans. And the country’s welfare state is patchwork at best, leaving a quarter without paid sick leave, nearly half of the population under- or uninsured, and more than half with no emergency savings. Without an entire restructuring of our capitalist system, we’ll keep finding ourselves in the same position.Either way, it’s clear that we won’t be able to crowdfund our way out of this recession.“Everyone is asking for money in the exact same way. How sustainable is that model?” a former City Winery hourly employee said. “I think it’s incredibly depressing that we have to rely on something like GoFundMe for something that should be a human right.”Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
It’s not that Hollywood support staff don’t desperately need these funds, but that the ad hoc method of providing relief requires the internet to pick favorites.