Issues

Labor Group Exploits Coronavirus to Fill Coffers

Labor activists will pocket cash raised for servers affected by quarantine

A labor group plans to line its pockets with donations sent to an emergency fund that claims to help service-sector workers affected by the coronavirus.

The forced closure of restaurants amid the coronavirus outbreak has forced the service sector to furlough or terminate its employees, a major economic disruption that is expected to cost workers between $300 to $400 million per month in New York City alone. In response, One Fair Wage (OFW), a labor group, set up the "Emergency Coronavirus Affected Workers Support Fund" on Monday to pay $213 in cash to any tipped and service-sector workers in 10 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. OFW's "no-strings-attached cash assistance" for workers comes with some major caveats: Workers must sign up for OFW, "participate in a confirmation interview" to qualify, and kick back a portion of donations to organizers, while the group will pocket any unclaimed donations for its own purposes.

The group asked supporters to contribute to the fund, but it is unclear how much of that money will end up in the hands of workers. It deducts an "administrative fee" from all donations, according to the website. Furthermore, OFW will pocket all unclaimed money to fuel its activism if not enough people claim the stipend.

"Our goal is to raise a significant amount of money to temporarily meet some of the significant needs in our community, and get that money out the door quickly," the fundraising page said. "The One Fair Wage campaign will deduct a standard administrative fee and any unspent funds will support tipped worker organizing and advocacy efforts."

Simone Barron, a server from Seattle and a director of employee advocacy nonprofit Restaurant Workers of America, condemned the OFW campaign, arguing that the group was taking advantage of desperate service-sector workers to fill its coffers.

"They're taking advantage of the crisis to raise money for themselves. That should tell anybody right there what kind of people these are," she told the Washington Free Beacon. "They're wolves. That's what they are—predators."

OFW did not respond to request for comment.

OFW is controlled by the former leaders of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC). While ROC frequently stages protests and strikes against restaurants, the federal government considers the group a nonprofit, exempting it from the regulations that govern a traditional labor union. The controversial labor group pushes for tipped workers to receive the same base wage as other minimum wage workers.

ROC and OFW have been greeted by resistance from some of the workers they claim to represent. In 2016, ROC successfully spearheaded a Maine ballot measure to end the minimum wage exemption for tipped employees. Lawmakers overturned the measure following public outcry from tipped workers who said hiking the minimum wage would cut their pay and lead to job losses.

Joshua Chaisson, a Maine bartender and a director for Restaraunt Workers of America, compared the OFW's coronavirus fund to the 2016 minimum wage hike campaign. While donors may think they are helping struggling workers, they are actually giving to a "grotesque money grab" that is "essentially a membership drive."

"We were not surprised at all when we saw what is essentially a membership drive," Chaisson said. "To use a time of national crisis, especially for the hospitality industry, as a grotesque money grab to suit their own political agenda is appalling and disgusting."

ROC did not respond to a request for comment.

ROC and OFW have close ties with the Democratic establishment. The Obama administration named Saru Jayaraman, ROC cofounder and OFW president, as a "Champion of Change" in 2014. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden celebrated the $15 minimum wage ROC championed in New York. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez publicly joined ROC's campaign to hike the minimum wage in Maine.

Labor watchdogs criticized the group for exploiting the crisis to advance its own ends. Michael Saltsman, managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, said ROC and OFW are undermining struggling workers.

"The corona crisis is devastating to the hospitality industry, and both workers and employers need their legislators to provide direct aid and relief," Saltsman said. "This worthy cause isn't helped by the opportunistic actions of ROC and One Fair Wage, which could siphon donations away from legitimate fundraisers in service of a membership drive for the failed tip credit elimination campaign."

Barron said that the best way to support tipped workers during this pandemic is to order food from local restaurants, rather than donate money to shady charities.

"If people want to support restaurants … just stick with us until we get through this," she said. "And if they offer takeout, go grab takeout from them. That's going to be a lot of restaurant's lifeline through this, so just go and patronize them in that regard."