After tens of thousands of servers, bartenders, baristas, dishwashers, and other service industry workers across Oregon found themselves out of a job last week, Jacqi Ko set out to find another way to help her community. The front of house manager for the plant-filled cocktail hotspot Hey Love, Ko was inspired by campaigns elsewhere in the country, and launched the Portland Virtual Tip Jar on March 17. It’s one of a number of programs, sites, and resources that industry workers have developed to protect laid off employees and shuttered restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The site is essentially a streamlined way to send money to Portland industry workers via Venmo, CashApp, and PayPal. Like the growing number of other virtual tip jars across the country, Portland’s version requires industry workers to fill out a brief Google form with details like job title, ability to access to healthcare, and if they’re responsible for someone else’s care. Those responses are then populated onto a master spreadsheet that the public can browse through to find someone’s handle and directly send money. Since it was launched, the virtual tip jar has gained considerable traction, with more than 700 people having signed up by the following afternoon.
Ko has since been building out a full website with her partner to help reach those who might not have the same access, like undocumented workers and those who belong to marginalized communities. “I feel strongly concerned about the most vulnerable people in our industry which are going to be folks like dishwashers who might not be able to access Portland Tip Jar due to not being on social media or not having access to CashApp and Venmo,” Ko says.
Two gift card purchasing websites — Save PDX Restaurants and Portland Community SOS — have also been launched as a streamlined resource to buy gift cards from not only restaurants, but local retail, arts and wellness businesses, as well. Businesses can also add their information to the pages to be included.
The Portland Independent Restaurant Alliance (PIRA) is another community-developed program, which grew out of a Slack channel of concerned business owners and industry leaders from Portland restaurants like Le Pigeon, Eem, Ava Gene’s, and Either/Or Cafe. The unprecedented across-the-board closures — that for most has become a crisis, Le Pigeon and Canard co-owner Andy Fortgang says — has fueled the Alliance’s creation as a source of dissemination and proxy as a united front.
“This is an existential moment in terms of how each of our restaurants and if each of our restaurants come through on the other side,” Fortgang says. “That’s a question both of the immediate one to two months of being closed or not serving diners, as well as opening back up into a likely recession.” At the moment, PIRA is fielding issues ranging from navigating unemployment claims and how to change current business models, to creating united expectations on rent and pursuing a halt on commercial evictions.
“This is not a Wall Street problem,” Fortgang says. “No doubt had all of the big banks crumbled in 2007, 2008 there would’ve been mass ripples in the economy but what we’re really talking about here is tens of millions of jobs that small businesses employ.”
Alongside PIRA, the nationally minded Independent Restaurant Coalition, whose board members include Naomi Pomeroy — chef and owner of the prix fixe restaurant Beast — and Erika Polmar — founder of Oregon farm dinner series Plate and Pitchfork — has coalesced into a lobbying group aimed at ensuring restaurants and other affected small businesses are included in the upcoming economic stimulus package.
In addition to these action groups, Portlanders have developed individual fundraisers, helped out housing programs, and fed laid off workers. While the future of the industry remains uncertain, there is a concerted effort by workers and industry leaders to protect the vulnerable and fight for a comeback.