Restaurant worker fund struggles to gain traction

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A previously successful effort to aid unemployed Philadelphia restaurant workers has struggled to gin up the same type of enthusiasm, as the industry faces what appears to be its most difficult challenge.

The Philly Restaurant Worker Relief Fund has raised about $5,700 in three weeks. Over a similar period of time in March, it generated more than $30,000.

Cheryl Mollé, a fundraising and marketing consultant who helped start the fund along with a team of community activists, said COVID-19 has sapped people’s energy and drained their pocketbooks, nine months into the pandemic.

“People are emotionally exhausted with all of this COVID stuff. They’re sick of hearing about it,” she said. “And also I think the holidays might have something to do with it.”

“It’s understandable why donations are slow and why we may not reach our goal this time around, but it doesn’t make it any less sad,” she added.

Mollé, of Holmesburg, decided to resurrect the Facebook fundraiser Nov. 22, two days after the city’s ban on indoor dining went into effect. State officials extended that prohibition to the rest of Pennsylvania on Saturday. Those restrictions will remain in place through the beginning of January.

This time around, the fund is open to all restaurant workers, not just servers, like it was in March. Recipients receive $400 checks to help tide them over for three weeks, though Mollé hopes to boost it to four weeks, if donations pick up.

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Organizers are prioritizing employees who have been out of a job since the early days of the pandemic. Some have exhausted their unemployment benefits, or their compensation will run out soon, Mollé said.

There is a program providing a 13-week benefit extension, but, she said, delays in processing applications leave some without income for months.

In addition, some restaurants have permanently closed and others are expected to shutter, so workers may not be able to return to their job, even if a vaccine is effective and widely available.

“It’s devastating this time around, and all those workers at all those restaurants, even the smaller ones that employ only a few people, it just really adds up,” Mollé said.

“There are a lot of people who haven’t had jobs since March, and it’s not looking good for them getting another job when this ends,” she added.

The Philly Restaurant Worker Relief Fund began distributing money Dec. 2 to four laid-off employees who are receiving continuing assistance.

Mollé said a couple others have also been sent a one-time payment to help with a unique situation — they’re newly employed and still waiting for their benefits to kick in, for example.

During the March fundraiser, organizers sent out checks on a first-come, first-serve basis; however, this time, Mollé said, they are talking to people who applied to try to figure out what would be best for their situation.

“We’re being a little more selective,” she said.

Only about 17 people have applied to the fund, compared to around 500 in March. They have paused the application process because they don’t want to give people false hope given the fundraising challenges, Mollé said.

She still hopes they can reach their goal of $15,000, which would allow them to provide ongoing payments to 10 people and cover expenses. They had initially hoped to raise the goal and help more people.

“We’re holding out, like if there’s some miracle that happens,” Mollé said.

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