The restaurant industry has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic: Restaurants have dealt with shutdowns and capacity restrictions, leading to an estimated 2.4 million jobs lost. Restaurant workers who have kept their jobs have seen their hours cut and lost out on income from tips.
While some government aid has come through in the form of stimulus checks, eviction moratoriums, and increased unemployment insurance, there has not been any federal aid specifically for restaurant workers.
To help keep people in their community afloat, some social media users have created "Adopt a Restaurant Worker" groups on Facebook, where people can provide financial support and connect unemployed workers with future work.
One early group started in St. Louis, Missouri, where nurse Sheri Ford-Beezley worked with co-workers to establish "STL Adopt-A-Server" in mid—March.
"I have several friends who are bar and restaurant owners, bartenders, servers and cooks," Ford-Beezley said. "I was desperate to try to find a way to help them. ... The St. Louis group grew exponentially. It was insane."
While the group did have to come to an end — with over a thousand members, moderating the page became too much work for Ford-Beezley and other group administrators, most of whom had full-time jobs in teaching and nursing — it spawned several other local groups nearby, including in areas like Kansas City and Central Ohio.
Samantha Ponce, a teacher who operates the Kansas City group, which has nearly 900 members now, said it was her history as a server that inspired her to start the group.
"Before I started teaching, I was a server for about 20 years and my daughter is also a server and she got laid off," said Ponce. "I couldn't imagine being totally without work without knowing what was going on and no help so when I saw the news stories for the St. Louis group, I decided to ask them if I could start a group here in Kansas City."
Around the country, smaller groups have popped up to serve specific states and regions. Susan Blymire and Melissa Harley operate "Adopt-A-Server PA and NJ," which has garnered about 300 members in just a month.
"There are a couple different ways that people ask for help," said Blymire. "People will say 'Hey, I need to be adopted,' and they will give a little bit about who they are, what they're suffering with and what they need. Some people are asking for money and will say 'Hey, I have this bill, and I really need help paying it.' Some people say 'Hey, I have a wishlist of groceries and items for my family.'"
Cristy Bearden, who operates a group that provides support for restaurant workers in Southern Pennsylvania, said that she has found that many users are interested in using the groups to find other jobs.
"Usually people are on there saying 'I need a job, these are the hours I'm available, I can work this day, this day, and this day,'" Bearden explained. "I've heard from people who have adopted their bartender from the VFW, or a college student who was offered a position after she lost a waitressing job. It's hard to gauge the exact number of people communicating, but there have been positive outcomes, which is really the goal."
The groups are just another example of mutual aid, a practice where those in a community exchange money, goods or services. The concept has become much more common during the pandemic as unemployment skyrockets and people see their wages or work hours cut, leading to financial need. Every group administrator interviewed by TODAY said that the biggest requests in their groups are for help with paying utility bills or affording groceries.
"Bills and groceries seem to be the most common things," said Erin Matuch, who operates a group for Alleghany County, Pennsylvania workers that has over a thousand members.
"The rent is pretty high here, so some people ask for help with that," said Harley. "It's a lot of water and gas bills, clothes for the kids and diapers, stuff like that."
"There's people who need a little help getting to their bill payments, people are like 'Oh, I'm $60 short on rent and my phone might get shut off,'" Blinder said.
Ponce said that in the early months of the pandemic, school supplies were another major request.
"People were teaching at home, so they asked for books, study books and stuff like that for their children," Ponce said. "Sometimes people wanted toys and clothes — a lot of people asked for clothes for their kids."
Many groups operate with wish lists at Amazon, Walmart, or other major retailers, which administrators say makes it easier to verify users and help people get the supplies they need. Harley said that her group even has members who have volunteered to drive meals to those in need. Ponce said that her group takes requests from adoptees and adopters to match people together.
Group operators told TODAY that they've been surprised to see how successful the pages have been, and hope to keep them operating for at least the duration of the pandemic.
"I didn't create it thinking that anybody would notice, but I just wanted people to know that everybody can make a change, that everybody can do something for someone," said Bearden. "Anything can make a difference, because that can put a person in the mood to do something for someone else, and that action can really just be the pebble thrown into a pond that creates the ripple."