MISSOULA — As local businesses and nonprofits struggle to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic and Congress debates a potential relief package, the United Way of Missoula County has established a fund to help pay laid-off workers in the service industry.
Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of the local United Way, said the fund was established to help those individuals who found themselves out of work as bars and restaurants were forced to close to slow the spread of the virus.
“We are particularly aware of service workers who are temporarily displaced and least likely to have any resources to fall back on,” Patrick told the Missoula Current on Wednesday. “Those of us staying home and not patronizing our favorite establishments could consider donating what we would have spent on meals and beverages to this fund.”
It’s not yet known how many service industry workers in Missoula have been displaced by the virus, but early estimates places them in the many hundreds. Health officials in Missoula County, along with others in the state, ordered all bars and restaurants to close, less carry-out orders.
That has left many in the service industry out of work.
“Hope is never a strategy,” Patrick said. “I think we are sort of head down, working as hard as we can to fill the gaps and help the people who need us now more than they ever have in my lifetime. We don’t have the luxury of looking that far ahead. We just need to get through this.”
While the order to close bars and restaurants is set to expire next week, most in the industry don’t believe the restrictions will be lifted any time soon. It could last for months, and some businesses may not last if the closures are prolonged.
Some workers may not have a job to return to.
“Organizations that were not strong in the good times are not going to survive this,” Patrick said. “It’s going to increase the burden on the nonprofit sector.”
With that in mind, the United Way’s emergency relief fund will also go to support trusted partners in the nonprofit sector who have a history of helping individuals in need.
Patrick said they include the Missoula Food Bank, the Poverello Center, the Missoula YWCA and Missoula Aging Services, among others. The organizations could find themselves playing an even greater role in assisting an unexpectedly large number of people.
“We have a long and strong relationship with nonprofits who work directly with individuals,” Patrick said. “Depending on the support we raise – and I know it’s a very uncertain time financially – we plan to support as best we can some of our longtime partners who work directly with individuals.”
Patrick said that will include the 2-1-1 system – Missoula’s community information line.
“They do a good job screening and responding to individual requests for assistance,” Patrick said. “We’re going to partner with them to assist the people we’ve targeted – the service workers.”
A number of local businesses have established a similar fund to help their own employees. Several have committed to paying their employees for lost hours through the closure.
Logjam Presents established its fund on Tuesday, hoping to pay its nearly 200 hourly employees during the shutdown. The company contributed $100,000 to get the fund started and has raised nearly $4,000 toward its $50,000 goal.
“We’re trying to give them supplemental income to get through this period,” said Logjam owner Nick Checota. “We’re hoping it will help them, and when this is over, they’ll come back to us quickly. When you take care of people, they’ll take care of you.”