‘Virtual Tip Jar’ helps service workers during pandemic closings

MADISON, Wis. – A new website is helping those who rely on tips get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

With bars and restaurants shut down except for carryout and delivery services, thousands of service industry workers in the Madison area are without their usual income.

While servers throughout Madison can’t currently count on tips, Madison resident Preston H. Austin said they can rely on something else.

“Despite all the things we hear in the world about how people are selfish, human concern is one of the most durable things in the world,” Austin said.

After being inspired by an effort in Pittsburgh last Monday, he and a friend, Philip Crawford, created a Virtual Tip Jar website at tipyourserver.org. It lets visitors deposit money directly to the Venmo or PayPal accounts of any of the nearly 2,000 Madison-area servers who have signed up. The website allows users to randomize their selection.

“Those of us who have more reliable incomes have the obligation and the duty to help out where we can,” Austin said. “We’ve heard back anecdotally from a couple people who have materially benefited, at the level of, ‘OK, I can buy groceries I couldn’t otherwise buy,’ and that’s a big, big deal.”

“Right now, a lot of people are trying to figure out how to pay rent and bills, so if the community wants to help, that’s awesome,” said Jaimie Fairbanks, house manager at Rockhound Brewing Company. “Every day it’s waking up and seeing what the new normal is today.”

As the pandemic leaves many restaurants dark and empty, Rockhound Brewing Company is keeping the lights on with carryout orders and limited hours.

“We’re doing it to keep our doors open so the Rockhound family has a place to come back to,” Fairbanks said, adding that the restaurant had to lay off 21 of 23 employees.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “We care so much about our staff. We’re our little family.”

Fairbanks said she’s encouraged Rockhound staff members who are currently out of work to sign up for the Virtual Tip Jar while offering any in-person tips, too.

“Any and all tips people are bringing in when doing carryout orders, I’m giving to staff,” she said.

Beyond those in the food industry, some who work in salons have signed up on the Virtual Tip Jar website, as well.

Austin said those in other cities have reached out to him hoping to recreate the website’s setup. Those who would like to help with the project can email tipyourserver@therabble.co.

Anyone interested in signing up or virtually tipping service workers can visit the website here.