In cities across the U.S., people are Venmo-ing their favorite bartenders, servers, and baristas.

By Gowri Chandra
March 27, 2020
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As of last week, nearly one in five Americans reported they’d been laid off or had their hours cut, according to an NPR poll. For the country’s 15.6 million restaurant workers, the damage is even worse. At least 24 states have mandated restaurant closures, with several cities enforcing additional measures. It’s not surprising, then, that last week was the single highest week for unemployment claims ever: just over 3.2 million, according to the National Employment Law Project.

While waiters wait for meager and uncertain unemployment checks, the industry has turned to a familiar solution: crowdsourcing. But unlike the GoFundMe’s of yore, this time it’s direct Venmo donations. Now you can scroll databases of baristas, bartenders, and servers all over the country, and donate to them directly.

Albert Shakirov / Adobe Stock

Several sites have sprung up in the last week, crowdsourcing the names and payment accounts of out-of-work hospitality staff nationwide. Covidtipjars.com, Virtual Tip Jars, and serviceindustry.tips seem to be the most popular.

It works like this: you click on a city—maybe the one you live in, maybe not—and choose someone’s name from the Google spreadsheet. It could be your favorite bartender down the block, or someone you’ve never met. You send them a few bucks via Venmo, Paypal, or CashApp. And that’s it. It goes directly to the employee, no middlemen involved. Most donations range from $5 to $15, often to strangers.

Emily Gibson, who got laid off from L.A.’s Everson Royce Bar last week, launched Los Angeles Tip Jar. So far, it has 133 names and at least $400 in reported donations—probably more. It’s hard to know how much anyone’s actually donating, unless they email to report back. One donor did, however, letting Gibson know she sent $10 each to 16 random strangers.

Melissa Corrigan, a graphic designer whose husband manages a bar, launched Virtual Tip Jars. It aggregates city-specific spreadsheets like the one Gibson started. So far there are 45 cities listed, ranging from New York City to Moore, Oklahoma. Corrigan has been getting emails from out-of-work servers all over the country, expressing their gratitude.

She’s shared them with Food & Wine, with permission. “I put my name on the list, not expecting much honestly, but anything helps and that’s all I could hope for,” Jessica Jordan wrote. “I have personally received two donations..one for $10 and one for $25 ... and I cried my eyes out!! The message on the $10 was ‘I hope you’re back to work soon’ ... from a complete stranger!!! The love and hope that gave me is indescribable and that means more to me than money. Thank you so much for giving us hope and keeping my faith alive.”

Dawn Alexander, another laid-off service worker, has also received a couple of donations so far. “I decided that I'm going to use 50% of them to help give back to the community,” she writes. “So, this weekend, I'm making a whole bunch of cookies and muffins to send to the hospital. If the tips keep coming in, baked goods will keep going out!”

Crowdsourcing has always been common in the hospitality industry, with workers less likely to have a strong social safety net. R. Eric Thomas, now a senior staff writer at Elle, spent a decade as a server, bartender, and manager. “If somebody broke their arm, which friends of mine have, and they couldn't work, people would collect money for them,” he says. “Or sometimes we would have a night where we donate all our tips to give to that person for the week. So it's a really common practice.”

Last week, as these sites were just starting to pop up, Thomas shared his own. He launched Nationwide Virtual Tip Jars, an aggregated list of city-specific websites. After he shared the link on Facebook, several people commented to add their own cities. Gibson was one of them. She realized there wasn’t yet a Google spreadsheet for Los Angeles—“I was kind of shocked,” she says—and designed one of her own.

Unlike all the pages mentioned here, Service Industry Tips is a bit different. It randomly generates one worker’s name to whom you can donate. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all, this might help.

The whole virtual tip jar concept—at least in its current iteration—began in Pittsburgh last Monday. That’s when an anonymous employee at Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Ethics and Policy published Pittsburgh Virtual Tip Jar. Since then, at least 52 others have sprung up in cities nationwide, with several cities having duplicate lists.

Admittedly, the concept has its constraints. There’s no way to ensure everyone on the list is getting their fair share; it’s also impossible to verify the legitimacy of recipients. But there haven’t been any reported incidences of abuse yet. And, given the severity of the situation, the risks seem negligible.

For some of Corrigan’s neighbors in Norfolk, Virginia, the situation is dire. “A lot of these people are literally without food right now,” she says. In response, restaurants have been setting up back-door meals: hot, family-style meals served soup-kitchen style for anyone who wants to drop by.

Undocumented workers have it the worst. They’re as much as 40% of the restaurant workforce in major cities like L.A., New York, and Chicago. They’re ineligible for unemployment, as well as any government rebates.

“That's really concerning to me,” Gibson says. “That these people are a big part of our industry, and they hold up the front of house in a lot of ways. I’ve been trying to rally some people I know get some money together for anyone who might be undocumented and might need help.” She recently applied for a $500 grant from Another Round Another Rally and plans to pass it on to any fellow industry workers who are undocumented.

For herself, Gibson has applied for unemployment. She hasn’t received it yet, but her colleague has, which gives her confidence. Still, California’s $450 max weekly payout only covers half of what she might have made in a good week. The beginning of the year is usually slow, with Dry January and all, but Gibson notes that this is the time bars would be ramping up to the busy season—St. Patty’s Day, springtime, Memorial Day. So workers are feeling their empty pockets doubly hard.

Outside California, many are less lucky. For those working in 43 out of 50 states which have a sub-standard minimum wage—as low as $2.13—literally 100% of one’s income can come from tips. It’s not uncommon to receive a paycheck for $0.0, after all of your $2.13 hourly wage has gone to taxes. In situations like these, the government is notoriously inaccurate at calculating tipped income, meaning that unemployment payouts are often a fraction of what they should be.

While people wait on unemployment checks, uncertain government bailouts, and a return to restaurants, some of Corrigan’s colleagues have pivoted to driving for DoorDash and GrubHub. Grocery stores and warehouses in her area are also hiring.

Still, employment comes with a tradeoff: being around strangers all day, exposing oneself to an illness while our government is warning us to stay home. There’s no easy choices here.

“There’s already fatigue of a certain kind setting in,” Matthew Kopel says, referring to all the fundraisers and campaigns. A former service industry employee, he now works at Cornell, and he recently launched Ithaca Tip Jar. “But just because you’ve hit your wall, that doesn’t mean that people don’t need our help. This is a long distance run, not a sprint.”

If you’re looking for other ways to help, or if you’re a service worker looking for additional funding, check out our list of resources.