Tourism | With a Little Help From My Friends

After providing emergency grants to over 4,780 workers, Louisiana Hospitality Foundation has moved to assisting with the pandemic’s long-term repercussions.

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com

In 2019, New Orleans welcomed 19.75 million visitors, and it would not be a stretch to assume nearly every one of them ate in one of our renowned restaurants, or at least grabbed a late-night poor-boy at Verti Marte. Our cuisine is a major draw for tourists, whose loss has left hospitality industry workers financially crippled. One organization striving to help those workers is Louisiana Hospitality Foundation. A nonprofit that provides crisis funding to hospitality workers year-round, the foundation is specially qualified to step up in these challenging times.

Louisiana Hospitality Foundation’s mission is to serve as a resource for hospitality workers, and as such provides workforce development, access to education and grants to workers in times of crisis to cover unexpected expenses like housefires, medical bills, high utility bills or funeral service assistance. When COVID-19 closures began impacting the income of those workers in March, the foundation partnered with United Way of Southeast Louisiana to create a Hospitality Cares Pandemic Response Fund.

The new fund was designed to provide immediate financial assistance in the form of $500 grants to those impacted by the pandemic. The program raised more than $2.4 million to support workers with living expenses such as housing, transportation, child care, health care, groceries and utilities.

Jennifer Kelley, executive director of the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation, said the funds donated originated from foundations, corporate gifts and individual donations. Third-party fundraisers from companies including New Orleans-based Neat Wines, which donated $1 from every bottle of wine it sold in Louisiana, and Dirty Coast, which donated a portion of its proceeds through its Screens For Good program, also contributed to the fund.

“The need was a volume we’ve never dealt with before,” said Kelley in early July. “Over 6,700 applications were filed, and the program has funded 4,780 applicants to date. To keep the integrity of the program with that volume was a lot of work.”

Applicants could file online or use the phone assistance service available by dialing 211. The foundation worked past challenges such as applicants who did not have access to online tools or bank accounts for direct deposit.

“We struggled just to fulfill the awards,” said Kelley. “If we didn’t have someone’s direct deposit information, we had to issue a check and that check had to be mailed to the address on the application. The U.S. Post Office was significantly behind for an unknown amount of time. Now I’m managing the inquiries from people that said they haven’t gotten their check yet.”

Kelley said many of those people have been evicted or had to move in with family members, both causing further delays in receiving their checks and showing how much help hospitality workers need. One crisis grant recipient shared her story anonymously.

“When the schools closed down, I had to remove myself from the schedule to take care of my 5-year-old, then our dining room shut down days later,” the recipient said. “It’s been hard to deal with the stress and financial stress while trying to stay positive for your child and learning how to teach Pre-K without bursting into tears. Thanks to the grant, I can breathe a little easier, especially since schools have also shut down hot lunches for kids locally. We’ll get through this together.”

Now that applications are closed for the COVID-19 crisis grants, the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation is continuing to support their stakeholders through more holistic means, directing people to the United Way’s weekly webinar series, “15 Minutes of FAME” (Financially-Aware, Motivated and Empowered Financial Capability) which provides individuals with the skills needed to keep finances healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar is conducted each Tuesday at 1 p.m. CT at facebook.com/UnitedWaySELA, and recordings of past webinars are available online at unitedwaysela.org/15-minutes-fame.

The foundation is also conducting a hospitality survey that has identified the ongoing needs of industry workers impacted by COVID-19. Just a few include child care, underemployment, mental health resources, healthcare, safety at work/fear of contracting the virus and legal assistance for evictions and bankruptcy.

“When the Pandemic Response Fund gives out its last pennies, the need for help isn’t going away. So how do we transition? What’s next for Hospitality Cares?” asked Kelley. “We are pivoting to our non-pandemic work and that’s really where we are focusing now. The Crisis Grant Program is still the work of the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation and is serving the non-COVID emergency needs of the industry.”

To learn more or apply for a non-COVID-19 related crisis grant, visit louisianahospitalityfoundation.org.