Ben Jealous Creates Relief Fund for Hospitality Workers

Benjamin T. Jealous speaking to a forum on mass incarceration Saturday. Photo by Glynis Kazanjian

Former gubernatorial candidate Benjamin T. Jealous (D) has crowd-funded over $1 million to support Baltimore-area hospitality workers displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The federal response to this crisis has been inadequate and left state and local leaders struggling to meet the needs of our most vulnerable populations,” Jealous said in a statement. “In order for our city to survive these difficult times, we will all need to pull together and lend a helping hand. I’m honored to do my part in the name of my grandparents.”

The money raised for The Maime and Jerome Todd Relief Fund, created in Jealous’ grandparents’ names, is intended to go to “direct relief” efforts to help workers afford food, rent, COVID-19 testing and distance learning technology. The first $550,000 will be distributed among UNITE HERE Local 7 Education and Support Relief Fund, Food With a Focus, Casa de Maryland and Keys Development.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Jealous, the former national president and CEO of the NAACP said that he got a call from Roxie Herbekian, the president of UNITE HERE Local 7, the hotel, gaming and food service workers union. She was trying to find resources to keep her members afloat in spite of mounting layoffs. 

Herbekian said that within a few weeks of the crisis’s start, thousands of hospitality workers were laid off. 

According to a news release, 95% of unionized hospitality workers in Baltimore have been laid off since mid-March, and non-unionized workers are also feeling the sting. 

“And as the pandemic advanced, and we saw, sort of, what it was doing to the economy, certainly the industry that our members work in, it struck us that this was not going to be a short-term, short-lived issue that this was a real health crisis in a real economic crisis,” Herbekian said, “and we needed to really think about and start taking some actions change our direction, to help people basically get through this really what was going to be, for sure a difficult, difficult period.”

Jealous said he did his best to connect Herbekian to the right people, but admitted he was “a little shaken” when he hung up the phone: His mother’s family survived the Great Depression because his grandfather, Jerome Todd, was a unionized dishwasher in Baltimore. That job and the “grace” of others helped them stay afloat.

Jealous’s grandmother, at 103 years old, is a retired social worker.

“So the notion that … that all the unionized dishwashers, basically, were about to lose their jobs and all the other unionized hotel and restaurant employees … just really hit me hard,” he said in a virtual meeting held Wednesday morning.

This pushed him to act, sending a note out to his email list asking for financial contributions. Jealous said that at first, he saw small donations ― including $2.50 credit card contributions ― soon turned to “bigger and bigger checks coming in.”

“And what we hoped might raise $25,000 or $50,000, we’ve now raised over $1 million,” he said Wednesday. “And it puts us in a situation when we can help organizations provide direct relief to families throughout Baltimore, and in so doing, show them the grace that my mom’s family was shown during the Great Depression in Baltimore.”

Camden Yards vendor and former Jealous campaign worker George Hancock said that the money coming now means a lot to him and fellow union members, some of whom have been in these industries for multiple generations.

“I was on the phone with a coworker that’s 60-something years old, they couldn’t get through to unemployment since March and like how this is how this man’s been living for the last 30 years,” he said. “So I’ve actually seen grown people in tears. I’ve seen grown women in tears, grown men in tears because this is what they know, this is their job, this is their work. This is how they eat. This is how they build.”

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.