Servers and bartenders bet their futures on getting out the vote

Record unemployment in the hospitality industry has left nearly 4 million workers with time on their hands. So they’re text-banking, holding rallies, and fundraising for the candidates they believe can send them back to work.

For the first time since he graduated from high school, Jeremy Richardson isn’t working in a restaurant. The career server and bartender hasn’t set foot in Gigglewaters, the Safety Harbor, Florida bar and movie theater where he used to work, since July. With indoor seating limited to 50 percent capacity, and no drink service at the bar, there just isn’t enough work for him to do.

He’s picked up odd jobs, like shopping for the online grocery delivery service Instacart, but mostly, he’s been text banking for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. He estimates he’s contacting 3,000 to 4,000 Florida voters a week. Between texting and writing postcards to voters in other swing states, Richards is spending at least 20 hours a week volunteering to get out the vote. That’s time he’s never had before.

“I have a hard time turning it off,” Richardson said of his efforts, “knowing there’s only a month left.”

“There’s been a long history of unemployed people, or underemployed people, turning to political action in the United States,” said William Brucher, a Rutgers labor professor and former organizer. “That this pandemic happened during an election year—the circumstances are almost too perfect for it.”

The National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group, estimates that nearly 100,000 restaurants are closed permanently or will be long-term. Even after a hiring surge in May and June, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector is down 23 percent since February, with nearly 4 million jobs lost, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the largest such drop in any industry this year.

“There’s been a long history of unemployed people, or underemployed people, turning to political action in the United States.”

And the downward spiral isn’t going to stop spiraling anytime soon. In a recent survey of 3,500 restaurant operators, 38 percent of respondents said they expect to close in the next six months if business conditions stay the same.

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The activism is robust for both parties, up and down the ticket. Dani Ritchie said she was “never super involved in politics.” But that changed this spring, when North Country Brewing Company, a brewpub in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, had to shut down. Ritchie, who bartended there, started volunteering for Sean Parnell, a Republican trying to oust Democrat Conor Lamb in the state’s 17th congressional district, by collecting small donations.

The restaurant has since reopened, but Ritchie only works one 11-hour shift every other week. She blames the state’s Democratic leadership for the business restrictions—like limited indoor occupancy, and no bar seating—that cost her the tips she relies on for income.

“There are so many restaurants in my area that have had to close permanently, that have been there for so many years, and it’s sad,” Ritchie said. “Sean Parnell is a candidate who cares to do something about that.”

Last spring, furloughed hospitality workers in New Orleans, Louisiana held a rally to demand cash assistance from a municipal “rainy day” funds. And laid-off restaurant and bar workers in Chicago, Illinois and Denver, Colorado marched and protested to demand an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

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UNITE HERE launches contactless door-to-door canvassing operation in Philadelphia PHILADELPHIA — Over 100 UNITE HERE canvassers hit the doors today in Philadelphia, following a socially-distanced rally at Fairhill Square park. The canvassers, many of them out-of-work hospitality workers, are on the ground for the final weeks of the campaign to mobilize Black and Brown voters in North, West and Southwest Philadelphia. “Here in the poorest big city in the country, Black Philadelphians aren’t just facing down COVID-19, but also an epidemic of gun violence, and generations of poverty,” said Nicole Hunt, President of UNITE HERE Local 634, “Our mission is to break through the hopelessness and apathy that so many Black Philadelphians feel, and let them know that our lives are literally at stake in this election. As Trump tells white supremacists to stand back and stand by, we’re telling Black voters to step up, step out and vote.” Canvassers were joined by Philadelphia Mayor @phillymayor and former Congressman @repgutierrez, visiting the city to help mobilize the Puerto Rican community. “November’s election is like no other in our lifetime,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, “The outcome in Pennsylvania will determine whether our nation moves beyond the chaos, hate, bigotry and incompetence of Donald Trump. Every vote will be crucial. I join with UNITE HERE and urge all who oppose Trump’s bigotry and hate to get out and vote.” Pennsylvania is increasingly seen as the swing state most likely to determine the outcome of the electoral college, and hospitality workers union UNITE HERE views the Philadelphia ground game as a key part of Joe Biden’s path to victory. Three UNITE HERE locals — Locals 274 and 634 of Philadelphia (@uniteherephilly) and Local 54 of Atlantic City — are coordinating the effort, joining the union’s operations in Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. ### #voting #vote #election #elections #politics #democracy #phillyvotes #philadelphia #pavotes #pennsylvania #philly #phillyelection covid #electionday #govote #election2020 #2020election #TakeBack2020 #unitehere #1u #unionproud #got

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As the election nears, the focus has expanded from issues that affect daily life in a given state to party solidarity. In Florida, over 700 laid-off housekeepers, cooks, servers, and dishwashers are knocking on doors and calling and texting voters for an election canvass organized by UNITE HERE, a hospitality union that regularly stumps for Democrats. In 2016 and 2018, said MJ Leira, a union spokeswoman, just 30 members participated in Florida canvasses.

“We’ve never participated in a national election to this magnitude,” said Leira, who estimates that over 15,000 of the union’s 34,000 members statewide are still furloughed.  

The burst of political activity reminds Ian Greer, a Cornell University labor researcher, of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the unemployment rate may have reached 25 percent. In major cities across the country, workers created “unemployment councils” and demanded opportunities for relief work. Ultimately, that led to the creation of unemployment insurance, and contributed to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“There were millions of people whose lives were totally disrupted, and their daily routines were disorganized, by the experience of unemployment,” Greer said. “That made them mobilize.”

Hospitality workers are well-suited to political action because they’re good at talking to people, said Allan Creasy, a Memphis bartender who has twice run as a Democrat for the Tennessee House of Representatives. After he was furloughed from a bartending job at Celtic Crossing, an Irish pub, he became a full-time political consultant who fundraises for progressive candidates running for the statehouse.

“There were millions of people whose lives were totally disrupted by the experience of unemployment. That made them mobilize.”

“What you do as a bartender is, you listen to peoples’ problems, and you try to talk to them about it,” Creasy said. “I got tired of being told those problems, and not being able to do anything about it. That’s what made me start volunteering for campaigns, and then made me become a candidate myself.”

Ritchie, the Pennsylvania bartender, believes Parnell will win the congressional seat, and that President Trump will be re-elected. “I’m very hopeful,” she said, noting all the Republican lawn signs in her town.

If Democrats take power in Washington, Ritchie worries they will pass a $15 minimum wage that could worsen the economic pain of the pandemic. The way she sees it, menu prices will skyrocket, more patrons will stay home, and more people will lose their jobs.

Richardson, the Florida server, agrees that the stakes are high. He just thinks that the Democrats are the right ones to fix things.

“The Covid response from the Trump administration has been abysmal, to the point where I have lost my way of living,” he said. “I’m trying to get someone in there who has the competency to handle a Covid response, and to get myself and the people who are closest to me back to work.”

Sam Bloch is a staff writer for The Counter.