Donor network helps unemployed gig workers get by

Jessica Manning has a father with COVID-19 to look after and no place open to debut her new album.

Jessica Manning has a father with COVID-19 to look after and no place open to debut her new album. Nylon Saddle Photography

Liz Donato always knew 2020 was going to be a big year.

May and June were going to be peak wedding season at PAIKKA, the St. Paul event space where Donato serves as venue director. PAIKKA was fully booked by couples wanting the symmetry of the new decade for their anniversary. 

Donato is just as busy now working from home, helping clients reschedule their big days for the fall or even later. Having a job at all is a blessing. Her musician husband Hank wasn’t so lucky. All his shows have been suspended, as have the church services he’d play for extra money.

They have a lot of friends—gig workers, artists, servers—in the same position or worse. Their social media feeds quickly filled with gloom.

On March 20, in between Gov. Tim Walz’s state-of-emergency announcement and his stay-at-home order, the Donatos created a mutual aid network and named it the easily Googleable “COVID-19 Income Relief.” (Small-scale relief efforts have also sprung up for the local service industry.) At first they invited their friends so those with means could give money directly to those out of work. But they were soon overcome with hundreds of requests.

There were a lot of single parents, Donato says. Freelancers, business owners, and other self-employed people facing a rockier road to claiming unemployment. People who had to voluntarily leave their jobs because of immunocompromised family members. Undocumented people who pay taxes but don’t qualify for benefits.

“Just to see how quickly it impacted so many people was pretty alarming,” says Donato.
The internet is rife with fraud from fake cures to fake fundraisers. So all the Donatos do is collect information about how much receivers are asking for, how much donors have to give, and pair the two. They complete the transaction from there, usually through Venmo.

Local musician Jessica Manning received $100 through the fund.

She’d been preparing to release a new album when the pandemic struck. Suddenly all the venues where she could have done shows to promote it were closed. The Airbnbs she cleaned for other income emptied just as quickly. Her freelance work, marketing beauty and wellness products from small businesses on the east and west coasts, dried up.

A month later, she has a bit more work, Manning says. Her beauty clients are cautiously advertising again. Healthcare workers from the exurbs are moving into metro-area Airbnbs to be closer to their hospitals. Long-term stays like that don’t require frequent cleaning, but it is something.

Recently Manning has also been buying groceries to be delivered to her father, who’d gone to New York to take care of his mom. Manning’s grandmother has since passed away, but her dad’s still in New York by himself, living out of her apartment and slowly settling her affairs. Recently he went to the urgent care about bizarre hiccups that went on for days, got tested incidentally, and was confirmed to have the coronavirus. He’s now in self-quarantine. All Manning, her siblings, and her mother can do is send him money for food.

Alex Hovda, a youth director at Knox Church, gave the $100. Since the pandemic reached Minnesota, his church has moved online as much as it can while Community Emergency Services, a local food shelf, packs food in its basement. Community Emergency Services’ clientele has quadrupled in a month.

Hovda’s wife, a nurse, is also busy delivering babies. He says they’re fortunate to both still have their jobs.

COVID-19 Income Relief has recently surpassed $10,000 over 60 transactions, with an average donation of $175. The biggest single gift was $750, which covered the receiver's rent. More than 120 people, who have collectively lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, are still waiting for a donor, Donato says.

“I think it’s been worthwhile for people who have given. I think it’s given them a lot of joy, and is just some action they can take right now,” she says.

“If we can help our community get to raise $10,000 to spread out to people, that even by itself is enough to feel like we didn’t just do nothing. And we’ve seen our friends be really generous, so it’s given us perspective on the community we have.”