Last week, a group of furloughed One Off Hospitality Group workers raised concerns about how money from a GoFundMe page was being distributed. The fund was set up to help workers who had lost their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis. A few workers criticized One Off for using the fund to buy grocery store gift cards for furloughed workers instead of giving those employees money. There were also questions surrounding health care coverage.
One Off is the parent company of popular Chicago restaurants like Publican, Violet Hour, Big Star, and Avec. Nationally, the company is viewed as one of the most successful restaurant companies in the U.S. But the pandemic has taken its toll and One Off ceased delivery and carryout out operations in late March. Leadership worried about spreading the disease and decided to close.
The company, which employed about 700, also announced furloughs and separations in late March. One Off hopes to bring most of those workers back once dine-in restaurants can open, a spokesperson says. Some of those workers aired their frustrations last week in a Block Club Chicago story.
In response to the criticism, partners at One Off say that they could have been more clear with communications with workers. Some workers didn’t want gift cards and point out the GoFundMe page made no mention of them. One Off partner Terry Alexander admits the roll out could have been smoother.
“[One Off] created the GoFundMe page, it was a great idea and they put it up quickly as we could and continue to work on it,” Alexander says. “They weren’t perfect. There were flaws. We corrected them as fast as we could.”
Alexander vows his company is doing the best it can as COVID-19 ravages the restaurant industry and that “every cent donated has gone toward employees.” As the public health crisis is fluid, there is no rulebook in regards to how a restaurant should handle the situation. Alexander says One Off elected to use the GoFundMe funds on gift cards due to worry workers would be responsible to pay taxes. It’s tricker when it’s an employer giving money to an employee, as the government may not consider the cash donation a tax-free gift. Though workers may have preferred to use the money on other expenses — such as rent — Alexander says One Off wanted to avoid burdening employees with taxes.
The gift cards were handed out dependent on the amount of hours worked at One Off in 2020. Alexander wants workers to know that the company is also willing to make exceptions.
“If someone came to us and asked if there was any other way I could get $200, I’m going to guarantee each and every partner would take money out of his or her bank account and hand it to the individual,” Alexander says.
Block Club reported the Mariano’s gift cards were picked because of convenience. Mariano’s has several locations across the city, and the logic shared last week was that workers wouldn’t have difficulty in using them. Workers have contacted Eater Chicago angry about how One Off sent an email to abruptly notify them they were losing their jobs. That doesn’t seem to be a concern specific to One Off, as many restaurants are learning there is no good way to furlough workers.
Health insurance coverage was another area of criticism. Alexander reiterated that the company has spent $180,000 so workers previously enrolled in an insurance plan would have coverage through May. The company will evaluate coverage options as the government determines when dine-in restaurants and bars could reopen. Right now, the state’s stay-at-home-order will keep them closed through April.
Alexander says One Off’s marketing team worked on publicizing the donation campaign. As of Monday, they’ve raised more than $92,000 on GoFundMe for employees of One Off’s nine restaurants and bars. There’s also two River North spots — Pacific Standard Time and Laurel Room — that are operated with Underscore Hospitality. That donation amount is a larger than most other campaigns for Chicago. The reasoning for that might be popularity, One Off’s marketing efforts, and that fact that the campaign represents workers from multiple restaurants.