Mutual aid groups face challenges to continue supporting local workers | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mutual aid groups face challenges to continue supporting local workers

click to enlarge Kacy Mcgill, project co-director of Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid - CP PHOTO: KAYCEE ORWIG
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Kacy Mcgill, project co-director of Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid
More than a year after Gov. Tom Wolf first shut down restaurants and bars in Allegheny County in March 2020, many of those businesses that survived the pandemic are starting to open for dine-in services. But as people are rejoicing in the ability to go out again, workers are still struggling, and the grassroots mutual aid groups that initially supported them have had to adapt to continue to provide help.

Kacy McGill and Taylor Stessney co-founded and co-direct the Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid, which launched the Greater PGH Restaurant Workers Emergency Fund on March 13, 2020, one week after the first COVID case was found in Pennsylvania. Now, the group is seeking their own 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and is collaborating with other organizations to continue supporting local workers. But challenges remain, and some local mutual aid groups have not continued beyond the initial weeks and months of the pandemic.

“Organizing is a very difficult, labor intensive — it's a lot of emotional labor ... There's a tendency to get really focused into mutual aid and supporting others, and then forgetting to support yourself,” says McGill. “And that's really difficult to balance.”

The Greater PGH Restaurant Workers Emergency Fund set an initial goal of $20,000 on GoFundMe, but within three days the fund received about 500 requests for aid. Within 10 days of forming, the organizers shut down requests for aid and set a new goal of $60,000 so that they could fulfill the requests they received, which they announced reaching in an Oct. 26, 2020 update on GoFundMe.

The fund spread through word of mouth among restaurant workers, and McGill says “there was a level of trust with the GoFundMe when we first started. It was worker-to-worker related, and there were a lot of folks in our specific networks that were giving.”

Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid organizers also started The Greater PGH Restaurant Workers Mutual Aid Facebook group as a place where people could discuss issues they faced in the industry and share resources. As the pandemic stretched into the summer and fall, though, the organizers tried to keep up with changing needs.

“We wanted to make sure that folks were able to have those conversations and have those dialogues ... so we could work together to potentially change some of the effects, like the low wages, limited health care, childcare, that have always been a part of our industry,” says McGill. They hope that these discussions will yield improvements that will make future disruptions and crises more bearable.

While the emergency fund initially planned on distributing money through platforms such as PayPal, Venmo, and Cash App, they opted to send grants of $150 and $250 to workers via direct deposit, check, or VISA gift card to increase accessibility for those who do not use those apps, have social security numbers, or wish to disclose certain information. Many used the funds to help cover expenses such as rent, bills, food, and childcare. The Workers Aid also began working with established organizations such as New Sun Rising, a local nonprofit focused on community development that serves as fiscal sponsor for Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid.

“It was really hard over the summer to lean on workers to provide support when the entire industry was so heavily devastated,” McGill says. “So we really needed to start having conversations with foundations and folks outside the community so we could make this a long-term initiative.”

The pandemic also lasted longer than most people anticipated, and while there was attention and focus on workers who were financially struggling due to forced closures at the start of the pandemic, attention waned as it stretched on. Initially, organizations such as The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Hillman Family Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments gave millions of dollars in aid to those in need, and The Pittsburgh Foundation donated $15,000 to the Greater PGH Restaurant Workers Emergency Fund.

Individuals donated to GoFundMe pages and other calls for mutual aid online. But as workers shifted out of the forefront of the cultural consciousness, it became more difficult for mutual aid groups to continue supporting local workers.
click to enlarge Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid Volunteer, David Bigbee puts together care packages for restaurant workers. - CP PHOTO: KAYCEE ORWIG
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid Volunteer, David Bigbee puts together care packages for restaurant workers.
“I think another reason that some of the organizations have shifted or sunsetted in some capacity is there's not a lot of overall outside community support. Even now, it's really hard,” says McGill, who notes that it’s also difficult to find people to volunteer.

The problem is not exclusive to the bar and restaurant industry. Groups such as the PGH Artists Emergency Fund, which assisted local artists who lost their primary income due to COVID, received its last donation 10 months ago, and the Pittsburgh COVID-19 LGBTQIA Emergency Relief Fund, organized by SisTers PGH, is no longer open to donations. Both were able to successfully distribute aid, and SisTers PGH continues to support trans and nonbinary people of color in Southwestern Pennsylvania through a variety of programs and services.

Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid now has a board of volunteers and two full-time employees paid through individual contributions and a $60,000 grant from the Henry J. Hillman Foundation. They are currently working with Night Life Line, a crisis relief fund by and for workers, to raise $250,000, which McGill says primarily goes towards overdue bills, food, childcare, transportation costs, and medical bills, according to feedback from recipients.

“It feels, in a lot of ways, like the pandemic has just completely ended. But it hasn't ended for a lot of restaurant workers. A lot of workers in other industries that were really strongly hit by the pandemic, it's still very real,” McGill says. “And those lasting effects are gonna continue to happen for a while.”

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