Meredith Moran endured a brutal bout of irony recently. After COVID-19 cost her, at least temporarily, a supervisor and server position at Chihuly Garden and Glass’s Collections Cafe as well as a bartending gig at Tom Douglas’s Brave Horse Tavern, her unemployment claim was denied. The reason? She was a full-time student in Seattle Central College’s nursing program—you know, the type of place that helps prevent a frontline worker shortage during a pandemic—so her schedule wouldn’t be flexible enough to take on a job should the opportunity arise, the state's Employment Security Department explained. Now Moran is in the middle of an appeal that could take up to six weeks to be resolved. All the while, she’s not being paid. “I’m in a lot of strain,” she says.
Thousands of Seattle restaurant workers have been in similar financial jams since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus shuttered local businesses and reduced others to lean takeout and delivery crews. When the federal CARES Act passed in late March, it expanded unemployment benefits, mandated $1,200 payments to workers making less than $75,000, and offered substantial loans to small businesses. But that help hasn’t arrived immediately. And some restaurant workers, due to their immigration status or other issues, aren’t eligible for it, anyway.
Enter the The Plate Fund, an emergency financial assistance pot o’ gold launched earlier today by the Schultz Family Foundation in partnership with the Seattle Foundation, All in Seattle, Seattle Foundation and UpTogether. It will use $4 million in seed funding to dole out one-time $500 payments to “restaurant and food-service workers who have lost jobs and income due to business disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a press release. Moran applied this morning—a manager from Collections Cafe sent info out to employees—but anyone can apply by simply visiting the fund’s website, theplatefund.com, and providing proof that they live in King County, have experienced a work hours reduction or layoff, and can upload a recent pay stub (a photo works) to show their annual gross pay is less than $62,000, tips included. (Update: As of April 15, 5,232 of 7,600 received applications have been processed, and $2.6 million has been given out to workers.)
A broad coalition of culinary world figures and organizations have backed the program. Ethan Stowell, the restaurateur behind 17 Seattle restaurants, including Cortina, Tavolàta, and How to Cook a Wolf, has lent his support. During the outbreak, 10 of his 17 Seattle restaurants had to close, the other seven now strictly serve takeout and delivery. Ethan Stowell Restaurants has lost 65 percent of its revenue, he says, and had to cull its collective staff of roughly 360 employees to about 60. He and a couple team members visited each restaurant to deliver the bad news. “There was a lot of tears,” says Stowell of “three of the worst days of my life.”
He says that previous meetings warned that his restaurants could go under and that employees should start familiarizing themselves with the unemployment system. Not that a heads-up makes it much easier for many of the industry’s workers to navigate. Stowell notes that restaurants tend to attract “free spirits” who jump jobs and state lines frequently, complicating their unemployment claims. He’s heard grievances from some of his staffers related to the unemployment system, but he also recognizes that the number of claims is unprecedented. “I don’t blame anybody. It’s never been overwhelmed like this before,” he says.
During his career, Stowell says 9/11, the Great Recession, and COVID-19 have been the greatest obstacles for his restaurants to clear. But “this thing,” he says, “is by far the biggest.”
The public can help too. Donations can be made on The Plate Fund's website and will go toward as many workers, regardless of immigration status, as possible.