Laid-Off Restaurant Workers Are Helping Each Other When No One Else Will

They're distributing food, establishing charities, and sending strangers money over Venmo.
April 1, 2020, 11:00am
A worker organizes food for donation on a table in a restaurant.
Jovanni Luna organizing supplies at Gertie. Photo by author.

It’s a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn and staff at the L.A.-style pastel-hued restaurant Gertie are getting busy for a rush, preparing to hand out free meals and supplies to restaurant workers like themselves who recently lost their jobs as their industry all but disintegrated.

Jovanni Luna, an artist and laid-off Gertie server, has come back to work to give out donated beer and toilet paper to laid-off food service workers in the WIlliamsburg neighborhood, while other staff organize bags of beef goulash, cookies, and salad on long tables to hand out throughout the evening. The normally crowded brunch spot now resembles a food bank that serves those left without incomes after New York City ordered all bars and restaurants closed, excepting takeout service, two weeks ago. Thousands of workers who specialize in feeding others now need to be fed, and here that’s being done with gloves and face masks across tables placed six feet apart to minimize crowds and hopefully prevent the spread of COVID-19.


“You do have to think about yourself and your health, but at the same time you’re not the only person suffering," Luna said. "This whole restaurant is one big family, one big community, we really have to look out for each other.”

I’ve been a server for almost 10 years in three countries and everywhere I've worked, the restaurant staff has come together as a family—a mixed-up bunch of creatives, oddballs, and hard workers who weave their restaurant into the fabric of their communities. When we were all laid off at my restaurant two weeks ago, we poured shots of tequila, shed tears, drank the wine and made it damn clear we all had to stay in touch and support each other through this. Because in a lot of cases, especially in New York, your restaurant colleagues really are your only reliable bonds in a city. And this crisis has shown how strong those bonds are, with various Google Docs, Facebook groups, and GoFundMe pages springing up to help, especially in cases where government programs can't provide relief.

These forms of charity are more ad hoc and informal than government aid or even normal nonprofit channels. In some cases, they amount to individuals sending each other a few bucks on Venmo. But restaurant workers, who often live paycheck to paycheck and have to pay rent on April 1, need money now however they can get it.

Gertie is one of 14 restaurants across the country being supported by the Lee Initiative and Makers Mark to feed out-of-work food service staff through the Restaurant Relief program. The grant, which covers getting four staff back on payroll, will allow them to cook 150 meals per day for 10 days for laid-off food service workers who just need to turn up—no ID needed or questions asked. After the 10 days, Gertie will need community funding to keep going.

Helping their own

Working as a server at Brooklyn farm-to-table restaurant Marlow & Sons, Kelly Sullivan saw how the coronavirus was affecting the industry weeks ago and got nervous, not just for her own financial situation, but for the people she’s worked with who don’t have any safety net. “By nature the industry draws a lot of extroverted people, and also a lot of people in precarious social situations, whether that’s because of immigration status, health status or alienation from family or community,” she said.

Sullivan, along with her fellow hospitality workers Anna Dunn and Seamus Branch, started the mutual aid fund Service Workers Coalition, and have continued to run it while navigating applying for unemployment themselves.

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Initially, the fund was intended to come from friends and be a small amount that was passed around depending on who needed it. Since restaurants closed, the group has raised more than $45,000 and is giving out weekly stipends to hundreds of former service workers in need, a kind of informal unemployment relief. Instead of having to navigate the government bureaucracy—which has been overwhelmed in many states by the suddenly jobless who need money—they could get what they needed from their fellow employees. “It’s an industry where you learn very quickly how little the systems in this country function,” Sullivan said.

There’s no vetting process for the fund. “If you email us and tell us you worked in a restaurant in New York, we will give you the money, and we don’t care how you spend it,” Sullivan said.


Working through personal accounts in Venmo and Cash App, the group has been flagged for fraud and shut down repeatedly, something many other mutual aid groups experience. The group says it's filing to incorporate as a nonprofit to get a business account to avoid that.

To keep the fund going Sullivan encouraged people to think how much they’d normally spend on tips in a week and donate that, or find their favorite bartender or server on Venmo and send them $50. “What we’re hoping is that the inherent cruelty of the economy is being laid so bare that hopefully even as people panic they’ll still reach out,” she said.

Helping the undocumented

Undocumented immigrants are the backbone of many restaurants in the country and for them, mutual aid groups that don’t ask for formal identification or paperwork are the only places to access help.

New Yorkers Audrey Pan and Sahra Nguyen foresaw how undocumented workers would suffer through the pandemic and started the Undocumented Workers Fund to raise money and quickly distribute it to undocumented food service workers who have been laid off. Pan said what keeps coming up in conversations is how scared undocumented workers are feeling under the current anti-immigrant administration. They also worry that they won't be able to pay rent and buy food, and what they would do if they got sick—many of undocumented workers lack health insurance, and after the “public charge rule” went into effect in February, allowing the government to deny green cards and visas to immigrants who use public benefits, many undocumented workers are too scared to go to public health centers.


And unlike documented workers, they can't rely on unemployment or the stimulus bill recently signed into law by Donald Trump.

“Even though I’m not a health expert I’ve had people coming to me with those questions because they’ve had no one else to turn to," Pan said. "Attorneys are backlogged right now and on top of the financial stress something that is really infuriating is ICE agents are continuing to make arrests in regions hardest hit by the virus like New York and California.”

Pan, the community organizer for RAISE (Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast) and Nguyen, owner of Nguyen Coffee Supply, raised more than $20,000 last week for the Undocumented Workers Fund through social media and word of mouth. Pan said because it’s a grassroots fund the money can be distributed quickly, and any undocumented service worker who needs one of the $200 grants can email them—all that’s required is a sentence on how the fund would help right now.

Pan wants the movement to create a chain reaction, and she said she’s had people from Los Angeles to Philadelphia reach out asking how to start their own funds. “The community has really been stepping up and helping each other in ways I’ve never seen before,” she said.

More traditional funding efforts run through larger organizations requiring more documentation are also available to laid-off food service workers, including the United States Bartenders Guild Emergency Fund, Restaurant Workers Community Foundation Crisis Relief Fund and others. The national Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an established nonprofit, is trying to raise $500,000 in relief for documented and undocumented workers alike.

But relief comes from all sorts of sources. My partner, a server who is newly out of work, has been painfully waiting on unemployment for more than a week, after not knowing whether he’d get it as someone going through an immigration process. He put his name on a Google doc for laid-off hospitality workers over a week ago, and while checking his account a few days ago, noticed someone had Venmo’d him $5.

I looked and this person had Venmo’d at least 20 other seemingly random people messages of support and $5. At times like this, solidarity can give people something resembling hope, so do tip your bartender if you can, even if the bar is closed.