Watch the Panel Discussion

On May 13th, 2021 in honor of our first anniversary, the COCO Fund hosted a panel to discuss the impact of the pandemic on restaurants and its workers.

As the distribution of vaccines has improved and COVID cases throughout the United States have declined, safety is still a question that everyone is wondering about. The question of safety is no more apparent than in the restaurant and hospitality industry, a job sector that was decimated by the pandemic and whose workers are among the most vulnerable in our population. Different projects that were created to aid hospitality workers during heavy times, including HELP Soar, Another Round Another Rally, Southern Smoke Foundation and Humans of the Kitchen, came together to discuss this very important issue. Erika Adams, a reporter from Eater New York served as moderator.

The beginning of the panel was opened with a special cocktail demonstration by Leigh Ann Heidelberg, a beverage specialist based in New York City.  Adams opened the panel with the monumental announcement from the CDC that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks indoors or social distance. This led to the question of the effect it would have on hospitality workers. From there the panelists expressed the issues restaurant workers face at various stages of the pandemic. 

Issues such as mental health, retraining staff, unfair pay, lack of training and harassment were all brought up by the panelists. The CEO and Co-founder of Another Round Another Rally Amanda Gunderson stated “For every $10 a white male makes in our industry, an African American woman makes $4…I don’t think there’s going to be a time where this inequality doesn’t end without intervention, where we don’t face climate change and natural disasters, where we don’t need educational opportunities to support staff”, “We should all hope that we don’t have to exist one day…During the pandemic we had to find a way to step up. It took everyone to build it. We’re seeing the need more now than ever […] We’re seeing now that rent forbearance is gone. They need 10 months of rent, 12 months of rent. Those needs are far greater now than they were in 2020. I foresee a very big need.” Michael Brotherton, co-founder of The COCO Fund, stated “With us, we started this from COVID, and we realized that there’s always going to be people facing emergencies and the industry isn’t prepared to help them. Until everyone is fully protected with health insurance and gets sick pay, they’ll need emergency help. Hopefully one day we won’t be needed, but I don’t see that happening for a long time.” Jose the International Correspondent of Human’s of the Kitchen has also said “too much of the discussion is on wages…there are inherent issues in the industry. The harassment, the staff turnover, the lack of training.”

Despite the ongoing issues the hospitality industry will face in the future, several solutions were presented, such as tipping systems, possible health insurance for the workers, cocktails to go and vaccination cards. Many of these projects have already helped so many workers in hopes to continue to make a positive impact. Help SOAR Founder and President Ronit Batra  said, Some of the studies that have stuck with me haven’t been so positive. We’ve had thousands of applications come in. Reading through some of the stories that they shared…it was really difficult to figure out how to prioritize funding. Everyone felt like they were in a critical situation – whether they were laid off or had their hours reduced. How do we consider someone’s dire situation ‘not bad enough’ when we don’t have funding to provide immediate relief to everyone?”  Executive Director Kathryn Lott from Southern Smoke Foundation concluded “Just having somebody listen, know enough, care enough to give you support is tremendous. It’s a ray of hope, it changes lives.”