WASHINGTON (WDVM) — The Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, D.C. is a workers’ center and nonprofit that helps restaurant workers in the DMV. It’s set up a series of social aid networks, called restaurant worker pods, to help connect people in the area and coordinate resources and support.  

ROC DC isn’t a service-based organization, but it’s had to shift its mission a bit in the last three months. Many of its members received stimulus checks, but many of its undocumented immigrant members did not.

“Those folks haven’t had any support whatsoever and are struggling to feed their families,” said lead organizer Sophie Miyoshi. 

“Workers who are still working right now need support to protect themselves from the virus,” said Elana Margosis, a mutual aid coordinator in Northern Virginia. “That includes personal protective equipment, providing hand sanitizer and handwashing stations, and maintaining six feet of distance between workers in the kitchen.” 

Margosis is collecting donations (like groceries, diapers, toiletries, and monetary donations) through Facebook and NextDoor and delivers them to families in need. 

“Many of these people are tipped workers. And they’re not making tips right now,” said mutual aid coordinator Veronica Tucker. “Oftentimes the people in our industry live paycheck to paycheck. There’s lots of fear.” 

Tucker, a banquet bartender, says a lot of her members in her pod are suffering from depression.

“Banquet managers are being told they’re not going to be able to serve in the same way in which they did previously,” she said. “If large gatherings are being discouraged – where does that leave me and my coworkers and our field of work? How do you live?” 

Miyoshi says it’s “ridiculous” that restaurants would be considered essential and included in Phase One of reopening because so much contact is required and because they’ll be working half as much as they did before at the same rate of pay.

“Workers are unclear about how they’re going to be making nearly enough money,” Miyoshi said. “A lot of folks were making less than what they were making on employment right now than before the pandemic. And people are even afraid of losing unemployment if they refuse to work right now because they don’t feel safe.” 

Miyoshi says nonprofits like ROC are also facing questions about how they’ll serve its members during recovery.

“The restaurant industry is never going to look the same,” she said. “We’re not just here to fill the gap in supplies – that can only go so far. Our mission is to engage those folks to understand why it’s happening and what we can do to actually change the systems so we can have longer term support and change.” 

“This is not a cure all and it’s not going to solve the problem of poverty and food insecurity. And it’s definitely not going to solve the problem of our wellbeing as food industry and hospitality workers,” Margosis said. “We’re scared to go back to work.”