Americas

Tipping goes virtual as coronavirus decimates US 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, favourite bar staff, and even total strangers via virtual tip jars.

The jars mainly consist of giant, city-by-city Google spreadsheets with more than 10,000 former employees’ names, restaurants, and links to their favoured 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 Mr Deke Dunne, a Washington, DC bar manager who has gotten “tips” ranging from US$3 (S$4.37) to US$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.”

Ms 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 and Baltimore, as well as places further afield including Des Moines in 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, theatres, and other venues raising money to stay afloat and celebrity-led campaigns to raise money for charities.

Ms 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.

Ms 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 (March 18) – when she would have usually been at The Midlands DC Bar Garden with friends – she said she sent three or four bartenders there US$10 or US$15 tips via Venmo.

“I just wanted to make sure that they’re able to get through this,” Ms 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.”

US service workers get most of their money from tips, according to the National Employment Law Project, and – unlike most other industrialised 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 Ms Rebecca Gorena, a 29-year-old programme director who created the Austin tip jar shortly after Owens launched hers.

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

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

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