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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Effort underway to aid bar, restaurant workers shut out of work by virus restrictions

UPDATED: Sun., March 22, 2020

Ted Munat, on right, with help from Ruins bar manager Crystal Bertholic, have started a relief fund for those working in the food-service industry – one of the groups of workers that is being hard hit by the coronavirus shutdowns. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Ted Munat, on right, with help from Ruins bar manager Crystal Bertholic, have started a relief fund for those working in the food-service industry – one of the groups of workers that is being hard hit by the coronavirus shutdowns. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The waiters, bartenders, cooks and others who work in restaurants and bars are one group of workers who are taking a monstrous economic blow as a result of coronavirus and the measures taken to try to stop it.

That’s more than 17,000 people in the Spokane area, and their lives are being upended by industry closures that threaten to change the nature of their industry dramatically – even after the virus passes. Many food-service workers were already in a precarious position, living on thin margins in an industry notorious for thin margins.

A lot of those folks are Ted Munat’s friends, and as they enter a period of great uncertainty, he wants to help them out. So Munat, with a big assist from Crystal Bertholic, the bar manager at Ruins, Eyvind and Hunt, have set up a fund to help hospitality workers in need during the coronavirus shutdowns.

“I think everyone’s very nervous right now,” Bertholic said. “I don’t think anybody’s feeling very positive that things are going to get better.”

Munat has started a GoFundMe page, and plans to take applications for assistance from local food-service workers who are out of work or losing hours now. Bertholic is helping to spread the word, and Munat is also getting help from Big Table, a nonprofit started in Spokane that provides support for people in the food service business.

Big Table calls hospitality work “a catch basin in our nation for all the most vulnerable demographics, including single parents, at-risk teens, immigrants and ex-felons trying to put their lives back together.”

On the GoFundMe page, Munat noted that many in food service aren’t in any position to suffer a big economic loss: “Given that the vast majority of hospitality workers live paycheck to paycheck, and that their rate of poverty is double what it is in other industries, this qualifies as an emergency.”

So, if you’ve found yourself wanting to help out local restaurants – taking up the mayor’s call to support them by ordering takeout – you might also consider contributing to Munat’s project. Scores of such relief funds for restaurant workers are being formed nationwide, as shutdowns to help stop the spread of the coronavirus have been implemented.

Food service can be challenging in the best of times. Owners struggle to stay in business; and employees often earn low wages and work unpredictable schedules. It’s a business that has higher than usual rates of addiction, and it puts a lot of stress on people.

“Your wages can be unpredictable. Your hours are unpredictable. It’s difficult work – takes a toll on your body over time. … a lot of workers need health care but don’t have it,” Munat said. “If a place has a bad few months, it can just go under and everyone’s out of work.”

‘A champion for hospitality workers’

Munat is a vocational specialist for Transitions, a nonprofit that works to end poverty and homelessness for women in Spokane. He also has a decade of previous experience in the “spirits industry,” as an event coordinator, fundraiser and author. His book “Left Coast Libations” includes recipes from bartenders all up and down the West Coast. He moved to Spokane in 2012.

He said that the women he works with through Transitions who are able to turn around their lives often do so with jobs in the hospitality industry.

“I do not want to see those same women back on the streets or in the shelters,” he wrote on his fund page, “and I definitely do not want my friends and family in the industry to become my clients!”

In an effort at transparency – and so people don’t think he’s “just some guy” scamming them – Munat put a personal bio on his page, and said that, depending on how much in donations come in, that they may partner with an organization to help manage how funds are distributed. It’s early days, still, but he wants to be careful and credible, and make sure people know they can trust the project

Bertholic has worked in the food-service world for many years, and is now the bar manager for Chef Tony Brown’s lively, creative restaurants. She said that Munat came up with the relief fund page, and then reached out to ask her to help spread the word.

“He’s just been kind of a champion for people in the service industry for a long time,” she said.

We’ve had a boom time for great food in Spokane during the past decade. The rise of smart, fun, affordable, chef-y food has been remarkable, greatly expanding the range of interesting places to eat beyond the sturdy old reliables. Local chefs like Brown, Adam Hegsted, Chad White, the recently departed Jeremy Hansen and others have won national acclaim. Cool, fun bars are in ample supply as well, and excellent creative cocktails – like those Bertholic produces – are available all over.

Suffice it to say, it did not used to be nearly so difficult to pick among the great places for a toddy or a meal in Spokane. And the people who work in those places all have contributed to making that happen – to making the city a livelier, better place to live.

All of those places exist in an economic balance that is precarious at best. Trying to survive weeks and weeks without dine-in service? For smaller, locally oriented places, and the many people working in them, that could be lethal.

‘Won’t be enough’

Following a strong year for job growth in Spokane, hospitality jobs were predicted to be among the growth areas for this year, according to state employment forecasts.

About 17,600 people work in food service or drinking establishments in the Spokane metro area, according to the Washington Employment Security Department. It’s about 7% of the workforce, and it’s growing, with an additional 1,000 food service jobs added to the economy since 2017.

Statewide, more than 250,000 people are employed in food service. Nationwide, more than 15 million are.

Hospitality jobs at hotels and some other retail sectors will also be hard hit – as will be a lot of employees working in industries where the ripple effects are felt. Congress is moving an aid package through that should help workers a bit, but as Munat said on his fund’s web site, however much relief there is, “we know it won’t be enough.”

For those who rely on restaurants and bars for a living, it’s a frightening time, and one without a lot of guideposts from the past for understanding what may happen in the future. Bertholic is going through it herself – the lack of clarity about what this will all look like a few months from now.

Asked how she planned to navigate the situation, she said, “I don’t know yet. I just don’t.”

“My partner’s a teacher. We’re both staying at home and having a lot of discussions about an uncertain future.”

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