March 23, 2020 / 10:04 PM / 2 months ago

Tipping goes virtual as coronavirus decimates U.S. restaurant jobs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As restaurants and bars across the United States shut their doors and lay off their staff in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, America’s famed service culture is moving online - with regulars paying their out-of-work waiters, favorite bar staff, and even total strangers via virtual tip jars.

Ana Owens, who started Washington's virtual tip jar - an online spreadsheet that helps patrons funnel tips to service workers laid off as a result of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, poses for a photo with girlfriend and fellow bartender Katie Gentsch in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2020. Picture taken March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Raphael Satter

The jars mainly consist of giant, city-by-city Google spreadsheets with more than 10,000 former employees’ names, restaurants, and links to their favored payment app. Those at the receiving end say tips are coming in from all sides – friends, regulars, and random well-wishers.

“It’s not income replacement, but the gestures are incredibly heart-warming,” said Deke Dunne, a Washington, D.C. bar manager who has gotten “tips” ranging from $3 to $33.

“Even if it’s just a couple of dollars, the gesture alone can help raise somebody’s spirits,” he said. “Every little bit counts.”

Ana Owens, a 30-year-old reproductive rights activist based in Washington, said the idea of an online tip jar came to her after her girlfriend – a bartender – saw her tips dry up in the days before authorities ordered the capital’s bars and restaurants shut last week.

Likeminded organizers setting up their own versions in cities like Austin, Houston, and Baltimore, as well as places further afield including Des Moines, Iowa, and Cabell County in West Virginia.

Efforts to help the out-of-work are also being championed via online fundraising platforms such as GoFundMe, which is full of restaurants, theaters, and other venues raising money to stay afloat and celebrity-led campaigns to raise money for charities.

Owens said she did not want money to go to restaurants or bars - which might not parcel the cash out fairly - and she was daunted by the idea of managing donations herself.

“So we came up with this idea of just letting people donate to servers and bartenders directly,” she said.

Gabby Weiss, a 26-year-old software marketer, is one of those who is using the tip jar spreadsheet to keep paying her local bartenders.

On Wednesday – when she would have usually been at The Midlands D.C. Bar Garden with friends – she said she sent three or four bartenders there $10 or $15 tips via Venmo.

“I just wanted to make sure that they’re able to get through this,” Weiss said. “I have a job that I can work from home. I can still earn a salary and I know that’s not the case for everyone.”

U.S. service workers get most of their money from tips, according to the National Employment Law Project, and – unlike most other industrialized countries – Americans’ health insurance plans are tied to their employment.

With restaurants and bars shutting down indefinitely across the country in response to the coronavirus outbreak, tens of thousands are suddenly finding themselves with no income and no health care.

“For me, it’s not even heartwarming. It’s a necessity for survival,” said Rebecca Gorena, a 29-year-old program director who created the Austin tip jar shortly after Owens launched hers.

A government bailout looms on the horizon, but Gorena said laid-off workers could not wait.

“It’s our responsibility to take care of them when our government’s not,” she said.

Reporting by Raphael Satter; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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