Seattle Fund Will Route $2.17M to Hospitality Workers Who Lost Work Due to COVID-19

by Ben Adlin

A new City-backed fund will send $2.17 million in targeted aid to Seattle hospitality workers who have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic, with affected workers eligible for up to $1,000 in direct cash assistance and as much as $200 more per dependent.

Online applications for the new fund opened last week and will remain open through Feb. 1. Applicants must be residents of Seattle and have worked at a Seattle-based hospitality business, such as a restaurant, bar, or hotel. The precise boundaries of the industry are unclear, so organizers are encouraging anyone who thinks they might be eligible to apply.

“In Seattle alone, our most loved small businesses have been forced to close their doors for good, including more than 600 restaurants and bars,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement last Monday when announcing the new fund. “These emergency grants are intended to provide a lifeline to hospitality workers most recently impacted.”

People interested in applying for aid can submit an application or check their eligibility through Wellspring Family Services, the nonprofit group administering the program. Information is available in English and Spanish.

The $2.17 million fund is part of a $5 million relief package announced last month by Mayor Durkan and the Seattle City Council to provide financial assistance to small businesses and hospitality workers. Most of the remainder is earmarked for grants that will go to restaurants and bars themselves.

“Thousands of hospitality industry workers across the City of Seattle have borne the economic brunt of the ongoing public health restrictions imposed on our restaurants, bars and hotels,” City Council President M. Lorena González said Monday. “While some have lost their jobs entirely, others are making significantly less due to reduced hours.”

Nationally, more than 110,000 restaurants have closed due to COVID-19 and related restrictions on public gatherings and indoor dining, according to the findings of a survey published last month by the National Restaurant Association. Almost 9 in 10 restaurants reported declines in revenue. 

A separate survey by the Washington Hospitality Association tallied 634 bars and restaurants in Seattle that have shuttered. Even more have closed since the survey was conducted back in August and September.

Given the scope of the economic impact, the new fund’s organizers acknowledge that even $2.17 million won’t be enough to meet existing need. More than 2,500 applications had already been submitted as of Friday, Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, told the Emerald in an email — theoretically enough to exhaust the entire reserve.

“We of course always want to do more to meet the vast scale of need, but ultimately, the City can’t spend more than we have,” said Nyland. “This underscores why it remains so critical that Congress pass another COVID-19 relief package with unemployment assistance and relief payments that actually meets the need in our communities.”

Organizers say it’s important that eligible workers apply anyway. Anyone who returns an application by the Feb. 1 cutoff and meets the qualifications for aid will be given equal consideration, with no preference given to those who apply early. Once all applications are in, organizers will prioritize payments to low-income applicants and people with dependents. 

Unfortunately in some cases, the fund’s FAQ section says, applicants may not receive any money.

“We know that there is going to be a bigger need than there are resources,” said Jessica Tousignant, executive director of Seattle Restaurants United, a coalition of small bars and bistros that formed in March 2020 to advocate for the city’s restaurant community. “The hope is that the data shown from the need will inspire the City to contribute more funding to the effort.”

“This industry is genuinely one of the most vulnerable and most affected communities by this crisis,” she added. “We’re talking about a population of folks who have been disproportionately affected by this virus.”

Even hospitality workers who have remained employed have seen their incomes tumble. A report published in early December by the group One Fair Wage found that more than 80% of service industry workers nationwide have seen a decline in tips, which make up a significant portion of their income. 

Beyond financial stressors, hospitality workers have also faced an onslaught of workplace risks and anxieties. Almost half (44%) of restaurant workers said at least one of their restaurant coworkers had contracted COVID-19, and 69% said their employer didn’t consistently follow social distancing and other safety protocols. 

More than three-quarters (48%), meanwhile, said they’ve experienced or witnessed hostile behavior from customers, with 59% saying such behavior happened at least weekly. More than 40% of workers reported an increase in unwanted sexualized comments from customers, who sometimes refused to tip if workers rejected the advances.

Tousignant has spent most of the past year working to help hospitality workers make ends meet amid the trying time. In March, as the pandemic emerged, she set up a community-supported program called the Seattle Hospitality Emergency Fund, or SHEF. That fundraiser, which launched the same day Gov. Jay Inslee announced Washington’s first stay-at-home order, has already raised and distributed nearly $400,000 in donations to restaurant and bar employees impacted by the pandemic. It’s still operating and accepting donations.

That money has gone to pay rent, utilities, medical expenses, and all sorts of other costs that industry workers are struggling to cover after losing work, Tousignant said. “In some cases we even paid for people’s health insurance so they didn’t fall behind on their payments.”

The two programs, SHEF and the new Seattle fund, are separate from one another, but both carry the same “spirit and intention,” she said. 

Both funds are also administered by Wellspring Family Services, a nonprofit aid group in South Seattle with roots in the city that go back more than a century. Tousignant entrusted SHEF’s operation to Wellspring last year, and the City followed suit after the announcement of its own fund.

“I’m really proud the City chose them,” Tousignant said, noting the organization has been working with the City since last spring to figure out ways to route pandemic aid to the Seattle area. “They have been serving this community for so long, and they’ve done a really incredible job of working very, very quickly to implement this funding. I think that oftentimes in a crisis, it’s easy to lose track of all the difficult mechanisms of what’s going on behind the scenes to make things happen, but they have been so thoughtful in how they’ve approached this community, and it comes from years of having these systems in place.”

Elmer Dulla, a bartender who’s worked in Seattle’s restaurant industry for nearly 15 years, was getting ready to open a bar downtown in April when the state shutdown came. When it did, his plans fell flat. “There was so much uncertainty at that point,” he said. “It felt apocalyptic.”

His wife is a nurse at Harborview Medical Center who works on an all-COVID floor, Dulla said, and he quickly got the sense the pandemic could last much longer than Inslee’s initial lockdown, which was set to expire in May.

Initially finding himself “basically unemployed,” Dulla applied for both state unemployment and another private fund that was offering $500 to restaurant workers. But he didn’t receive the private money, he said, and it was months before he heard anything back about unemployment.

“That whole time was a dark time, because there was no real support,” he said. “A couple months passed. Good thing I had a savings account to fall onto, but reading everyone’s stories on Facebook, it was tough.” 

As time went on, Dulla eventually started making withdrawals from his retirement account, taking advantage of a temporary government rule allowing people to take money out early without penalties.

In summer, luck changed. Restaurants were starting to open again, and outdoor dining was starting to take off. A friend let him know about a bartending position open at Loretta’s Northwesterner, a dive bar and burger joint in South Park popular with industry workers.

“It was kind of a dream, you know?” Dulla recalled. “I’ve been going to Loretta’s for the past nine, 10 years, and it’s close to my house, so I thought: This is perfect.”

While some days were “terrible” because of customers refusing to follow safety rules, people in general were taking care of each other at the time, Dulla remembers. “Everyone was looking out for the community, industry and non-industry. People were tipping very well, people were coming in. I would see so many industry people.”

That began to change in September when two big shifts occurred. Wildfire smoke blew into the region, wreaking havoc on air quality and spoiling what had been a prime outdoor dining season, and Congress let the expanded federal unemployment benefit expire, ending the extra $600-per-week payments intended to help workers weather the pandemic.

By November, as COVID-19 cases continued to rise, Inslee again shut down indoor dining.

Tousignant, who founded SHEF, described the combination of those changes as “a perfect storm” for restaurant workers. Dulla remembers feeling the effects of each one at Loretta’s.

“You could tell when the major decisions were being made, like the cutoff of the additional $600 and indoor dining getting taken away,” he said. “As time went by, there were just so many people who just weren’t tipping. It would be, like, tipping less than 10%. And that’s basically what you’re making your living off.”

While Dulla said he doesn’t plan to apply for the new Seattle hospitality industry relief fund — he’d prefer it go to people worse off — he can’t help but notice that fewer of his industry friends are dropping into the bar these days. Surrounded by protective barriers and making to-go drinks, sometimes he feels as though he works in a drive-thru.

Dulla thinks the $2.17 million in targeted relief is needed, but he’s also not holding his breath. 

“I feel like the outlook for it is everyone’s trying to be as positive as possible, because it’s been really rough,” he said. “But maybe that’s just my perspective on it because I work in the industry.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

Featured image is attributed to Club Soda Guide under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 license.

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