Washtenaw County's service industry workers seek solidarity and support during COVID-19 crisis

When Nathan V. Coleman decided to go into the restaurant industry, he says he thought he "would never be without a job."


"After all, everyone has to eat," he says.


Today, Coleman, head chef at Ann Arbor's The Last Word, finds himself in the dire position of wondering how he will be able to put food on his own table. It's a situation that thousands of other service industry workers are facing since Gov. Whitmer ordered bars and restaurants to close on Mar. 16.


"We were all without jobs overnight and probably won't be able to work for at least a month, possibly longer," Coleman says. "Many of my friends are deciding which bills to pay and trying to figure out how we are going to just pay rent."


As the government scrambles to sort out relief efforts amid the COVID-19 crisis, Coleman and his many local colleagues in the hard-hit service industry are finding solace by supporting each other.


Sometimes heroes wear aprons


For Coleman, that means doing one of the things he does best: feeding people. With the support of The Last Word's owners and staff, he's a driving force behind grassroots efforts to provide "Service Industry Family Meals". The free, pre-packaged dinners are available for industry workers to pick up and take home Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 4 p.m-7 p.m. at LIVE, 102 S. First St. in Ann Arbor.

Luther Layer picks up a Service Industry Family Meal at LIVE.

"Providing meals for people to ease some of the stress during this difficult time has been heartwarming," Coleman says. "Our goal is to provide as many meals as we can to people out of work due to the restaurant shutdowns."


The response is indicative of the need. Coleman says about 150 dinners were handed out over the first three days of the effort, and that number is expected to increase. He also reports that the initiative has gained additional traction as many other local people and businesses have pitched in to support the cause.


"Seeing everyone in the service industry family in this city come together has been amazing. Many people are helping others and it's great to see," Coleman says.


Helping each other in a time of crisis


Coleman announces complimentary meal details on The Last Word's Facebook page, and also on a Facebook group page called Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area. Started on March 15, 200 people joined the group just in the first hour after it was created. Today it's become a thriving, one-stop support hub serving over 2,000 people.


Gabi Bussell."I thought it would be helpful if we had the opportunity to talk about how we can help each other as a community moving forward," says the page's creator, Gabi Bussell. "Everyone has been pulling together and offering very useful information regarding mutual aid and unemployment benefits, among other things."


Knowing that many of her industry peers have been laid off or let go from their jobs altogether, Bussell, a local bartender, counts herself lucky. Her boss has been trying to keep staff employed and is offering paid time off for the time being. However, Bussell still feels the weight of the situation.


"It’s been hard. I know it has been for everyone," she says. "Working on the page and being a part of this community has offered me quite a bit of solace though."


Emily Christensen, a local server and bartender, has also found comfort through the group.


"I decided to stay in hopes of both getting and giving advice to others who have found themselves in the same situation: jobless and penniless, just trying to find either a temporary job or file for unemployment," she says.


Christensen is grateful her employer expedited her last paycheck and gave her an official layoff so she could seek unemployment benefits.


"Unemployment has been a difficult process though, as the site isn’t used to having this much action on it at one time. It’s simply not built for it," she says.


Emily Christensen.The Facebook group has been a tremendous resource for Christensen. Job postings and updates on which bars and restaurants are closing or remaining open for take-out have been particularly helpful. And she says it makes a difference to have other people who understand the sudden, multi-faceted turmoil.


"A lot of us already deal with depression or anxiety because of the amount of pressure we're under. People always think serving is easy, or it’s just flipping burgers, and it’s not," Christensen says. "We make good money because we bust our asses and give the best possible service to everyone who steps in our doors."


She hopes people become more aware of, and sensitive to, the strain service workers currently face.


"The pressure we're under financially is enough. We don’t need chastising from friends or family saying, 'If you had a real job, you’d still be getting paid,"' she says. "We really need emotional support and to know that we are not alone in this."


Keeping businesses afloat


Meanwhile, industry workers' employers are trying to figure out how to keep their own businesses – as well as their staff – afloat. Eric Farrell, owner of The Bar at 327 Braun Court, says his biggest challenges right now include "navigating bad government websites" and figuring out how to proceed in seeking help. The road has not been smooth thus far.


"There are some grants for Michigan businesses, but it’s not entirely clear how you get them. The Small Business Association is offering loans, but the rate is 3.75%," he says. "That’s what a rate should be when you’re buying an asset, not when you’re trying to save everything you have."

Eric Farrell at The Bar at 327 Braun Court.

As he sorts out options and details, Farrell has been deeply aware of his staff's plight. On March 18, he created a GoFundMe campaign to support them.


"My staff need to eat and pay bills that don’t stop coming, even when the government tells you to close," he says. "The funds will go to feeding ourselves and taking care of whatever needs may arise."


At press time, the campaign had already achieved its initial $8,000 goal and set a new goal of $10,000. Farrell says he's humbled by the outpouring of financial support.


"We’re a tiny little place with less foot traffic than most, but the people who love us are fierce," he says. "It’s amazing to see people show up and help us in our hour of need."


In addition to crowdfunding, many service industry establishments are offering substantial discounts on take-out and delivery orders to attract more customers.


Sean Malone, a high-end craft beer salesman at Daniel L. Jacob & Co., has been committed to compiling a comprehensive list of businesses' crowdfunding campaigns, take-out menus, delivery options, gift card availability, and more.


Malone guesses he's clocked in about 25 hours working on the document and is only halfway done. He hopes more businesses will reach out to him to be added, and that the document will go viral.

Sean Malone.

"I've hyperlinked information where I can to make things easy and accessible for everyone," he says. "It's kind of like a running list outlining all the ways that people can still support the industry from their homes. We need all the help we can get."


Like Malone, Bussell is optimistic that the public will rally to help offset the suffering that is sweeping across the local service industry. She hopes the spirit of reciprocity will prevail.


"We’re the people who have cooked your food, delivered your orders, made your drinks, washed your dishes, and cleaned up your puke, among other things," she says. "Many of us are currently risking our lives by offering carryout and delivery. Please don’t forget about us."


If you're an employee or employer seeking assistance during the COVID-19 crisis, check out our list of local resources here.


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.


Photos by Doug Coombe except photos of Gabi Bussell, Emily Christensen, and Sean Malone courtesy of the subjects.