Local group creates fund to help restaurant, hospitality workers laid off due to coronavirus crisis

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Downtown Lawrence is pictured on April 4, 2020.

Lawrence bartender Zach Dillon thought he worked in a safe industry, that people would always want to go out for a drink and something to eat.

But now that many businesses have closed and their customers are gone, Dillon and many others who work in Lawrence’s hospitality industry find that they are the ones needing help. He said for a lot people he knows in his position, it’s not an easy thing to ask for.

“I feel like we can be pretty proud, and we are used to keeping our heads down, working hard and going out there and picking up extra shifts,” Dillon said. “I know it’s a pretty big change right now for all of us just to be able to slow down.”

Dillon said he has worked in the hospitality industry for years, sometimes holding multiple jobs at a time. Now he is adjusting from working six or seven days per week to not working at all, and dealing with the financial questions that brings.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dillon is one the approximately 7,000 people in Lawrence who work in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes food services, accommodation and entertainment venues. And for many of these workers, the paychecks and tips have stopped, but the bills keep coming. Though laid-off workers are eligible for unemployment, those benefits can take weeks to arrive. To help fill the gap, the Lawrence Restaurant Association has created a fund to help laid off workers scale the weeks between their last paycheck and the arrival of their unemployment benefits.

Relief for hospitality workers

In the wake of bans on dine-in service and stay-at-home orders related to the coronavirus outbreak, dozens of local businesses have closed or reduced services.

At least 60 Lawrence restaurants and coffee shops have temporarily closed, according to a listing compiled by eXplore Lawrence, the travel and tourism organization for Lawrence and Douglas County. The ones that remain open have transitioned to providing carryout or delivery service only. All bars and nightclubs have been ordered temporarily closed.

Statewide, workers in the accommodation and food service industry has filed 25,387 unemployment claims over the past two weeks, second only to the unemployment claims from manufacturing, as the Journal-World recently reported. Douglas County had 2,304 people file unemployment claims across all industries in the week ending March 28.

The Lawrence Restaurant Association hospitality workers relief fund has so far raised about $20,000 to help workers who have lost their jobs due the coronavirus pandemic, according to LRA representative Emily Peterson. Dillon is one of the workers who has already gotten help from the fund, which continues to raise donations. Peterson, who is also co-owner of Merchants Pub & Plate, estimated that 50 to 75% of the hospitality workers in Lawrence have lost their jobs. She said the fund is meant to help provide laid-off workers some relief while they wait for unemployment or federal stimulus payments.

“We’ve got a lot of people right now who, at this point in time have been out of work for three weeks and have had no income because of the backlog with the unemployment office,” Peterson said.

Tourism related jobs

Other hospitality industry jobs are supported by tourism, including positions related to lodging and events. Various local concerts, sporting and other events have been canceled due to the pandemic in order to follow prohibitions on gatherings of more than 10 people and other orders. eXplore Lawrence Executive Director Michael Davidson said he knows of three hotels that have temporarily closed and those that remain open are operating at much lower capacity.

“I would assume there are probably layoffs and furloughs across the board in the industry at this point,” Davidson said.

With tourism at a standstill, Davidson said that eXplore Lawrence is focusing more on local marketing, such as the list of restaurants doing takeout and delivery and letting people know about virtual events.

In addition to the lost jobs, there is also lost revenue from tourists. Davidson said he expected a drastic drop in the second quarter collections of the city’s transient guest tax, a special 6% sales tax charged on hotel rooms in Lawrence that is paid in addition to standard sales taxes. In the second quarter of 2019, the tax collected $503,616, but Davidson estimated that collections would drop at least 80 to 90%.

Paycheck to paycheck

Since being laid off, Dillon has filed for unemployment for the first time. He said a lot of people in the industry live paycheck to paycheck and that personally he was just starting to build up some savings before being laid off. Despite those circumstances, he said he feels fortunate.

“I’m doing OK right now, I’m just kind of paying my bills as they come and I still have a little bit in the bank right now,” Dillon said. “But I feel like I was just starting to get my feet underneath me with saving money right before all this happened.”

photo by: contributed photo

Lawrence bartender Zach Dillon is pictured at the Burger Stand.

Dillon said he probably was in a better situation than some. He said that his employer, The Burger Stand, paid its employees hourly wages through the end of March even though the restaurant has been closed since March 15. Though he is lacking the money he would have made from tips in that time, he had that paycheck coming and said his landlord is letting him pay his rent late.

Dillon requested and received $100 from the fund, which he said he used to buy groceries. Applicants can request up to $250 from the fund, but Dillon said that he requested less than the full amount in hopes there would be more to go around.

“We’re all kind of going through it at the same time,” Dillon said.

The number of applicants the fund is able to serve depends on the funds they are able to raise, according to the fund’s webpage. Any local hospitality worker recently laid-off from a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, bakery, event space or hotel is eligible to apply. Applicants must have been employed since March 1, 2020. Those interested in donating to the fund can find more information on the LRA website, lawrencerestaurantassociation.com.

The fundraising campaign launched about a week ago, and Peterson said about 100 applications have been received in those first days. She said the $20,000 raised so far would cover the current requests, but that the association would continue raising money to fund more applications as they come in.

“Obviously 100 people is just a drop in the bucket of what we’ll be dealing with in Lawrence,” Peterson said. “So we hope we can really grow the fund quickly and service as many people as possible.”

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