Eight volunteer members of the MTL Restaurant Workers Relief Fund waving at their cameras.

Through their engagement in the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, Jessica Cytryn, BCL/LLB’19, and several of her McGill Law peers have helped support over 700 workers in the hard-hit hospitality industry.

When one of Jessica Cytryn’s long-time restaurant colleagues reached out to her in mid-March to ask if she’d be interested in co-leading a financial relief effort for the industry, she didn’t hesitate: “I worked in fine dining for over ten years, including in my first summer of law school; it’s still very close to my heart.” Within hours, Cytryn had not only jumped on board, but she had rallied a group of enthusiastic volunteers amongst her former McGill Food Law Society colleagues.

“Those in the industry who were going to be hardest hit would be folks who are already disadvantaged by society, such as immigrants, those who do not have familial financial resources to fall back on, and those who experience any number of access to information barriers,” explains law student Hannah Dean, one of the volunteers. “It was a concrete way for me to give back to restaurants and people who have given me so much, and who give our city so much character and culture,” adds Food Law Society alumna Talia Ralph, BCL/LLB’19.

Sorely needed support for the most basic needs

"On behalf of my family and I, thank you for everything you've done. That's one more week of food in my pantry thanks to your collective effort." « Je voulais vous dire merci personnellement. Tout est tellement chaotique et stressant; ça a vraiment rendu ma journée un peu moins épeurante. »

Inspired by similar initiatives in cities like New York, the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund distributes small emergency payouts to workers who have been laid off or had their hours reduced because of COVID-19.

The Fund gathers donations, processes applications from restaurant workers, and quickly distributes one-time e-transfers of $50, $100 or $150, based on the person’s self-identified needs. The amount is intended to help workers pay for immediate necessities like groceries, medication or hygiene products while they wait to receive other benefits or forms of support. “People relying on tips were very hard-hit in the beginning of the crisis, as their finances are more reliant on immediate cash income,” Cytryn explains.

A diverse collective coming together

Food service employees, as well as restaurants, wine agencies, breweries, merchandise retailers, coffee roasters, artists, designers, food journalists, and social organizers have all been vital to the initiative's success.

Through an active crowdfunding campaign, a dynamic presence on Instagram (@mtlrwrf) , and several partnerships with Montreal businesses, the Fund has raised an astounding $155,000 to date, of which over $100,000 has been distributed to workers in need.

“I have been awed by the generosity, financial and otherwise, of people and businesses in every corner of the industry. Food service employees themselves, as well as restaurants, wine agencies, breweries, merchandise retailers, coffee roasters, artists, designers, food journalists, and social organizers have all been vital to our success,” Dean confides.

“The diversity of perspectives, collective enthusiasm, and knowledge that has been poured into this initiative is truly remarkable. Given the pace of information being transmitted in the world right now, working with this group has been a crash course in a spectrum of important issues,” adds team member Sydney Warshaw, BCL/LLB’17.

Planning for beyond confinement

Beyond distributing over 100k of emergency funding to over 500 hospitality workers, the Montreal Restaurant Worker Relief Fund has also taken on an educational dimension.

Through a partnership with the Canadian Association for Food Law and Policy (CAFLP), of which Cytryn is also a founding member, the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund has also taken on an educational dimension. In place of its annual conference, which was cancelled due to the pandemic, the CAFLP has been holding a series of webinars providing hospitality workers with updates on governments’ different financial support programs, as well as new safety and hygiene measures being put in place for those still at work.

“After the Fund has served its emergency mechanism role, we have a long-term vision of continuing to support the industry. We are considering ideas like free legal or accounting services for restaurant workers, or offering insurance and benefit plans,” Cytryn says. “Even with deconfinement underway, it is becoming clear that returning restaurant dining to the capacity levels we knew before the crisis is hard to envision until a vaccine is widely available.”

Food culture is part of Montreal’s DNA

For many, Montreal’s vibrant food and beverage culture is an integral part of the city’s identity. As the industry braces for drastic change in the aftermath of COVID-19, successful grassroot initiatives like the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund send a comforting message of resilience and solidarity.

“The best part of this experience is the outpouring of support we’ve received from the community, small and larger businesses, as well as restaurant regulars. It’s clear Montreal has a very special relationship with its restaurants,” concludes Cytryn.

Interview: Karell Michaud.

All illustrations and photos taken from the MTL Restaurant Workers Relief Fund Instagram account.