A laid-off bartender helped collect more than 1,000 KN95 masks for Ann Arbor service industry workers


Members of the Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area (SIWA3) march in October. - ELISE BREHOB
  • Elise Brehob
  • Members of the Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area (SIWA3) march in October.

Shortly after Gabrielle Bussell was laid off from her bartending job at the Arbor Brewing Company in March, she threw herself into her work with the worker advocacy organization she helped create at the outset of the pandemic, the Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area (SIWA3).

"I'm currently laid off and basically just using that time to work full-time around the clock with this service worker group that I've been organizing with," Bussell tells Metro Times.

Through SIWA3, Bussell recently helped secure more than 1,000 KN95 masks to distribute to service industry workers in Washtenaw County, thanks to the county's free mask program. Another 120 masks came from a private donor, 80 of which are the higher-quality N95 masks, while the rest are KN95.

Bussell says through its Facebook page, which saw membership explode to more than 2,600 over the course of the pandemic, SIWA3 found that many service industry workers were not being provided with masks or other personal protection equipment from their employers — and many workers, who have seen their hours and tips slashed, can't afford to purchase their own.

"Unfortunately, during the pandemic, service workers have kind of been put on the back burner as far as being regarded as essential workers," Bussell says, adding, "We're focusing specifically on workers in this group because of the risk involved with them."

Bussell says the masks are especially a concern in Washtenaw County, where a highly contagious coronavirus mutation that emerged in the United Kingdom known as B.1.1.7 was first detected in Michigan, infecting at least 23 people. The University of Michigan has been found to be a driver of the spread of COVID-19 in Washtenaw County, which officials say account for 62% of the County's cases.

SIWA3 organized a March for Workers' Safety in October, after the campus reopened for the fall semester.

  • Courtesy of SIWA3

"Even if employers or bosses are following all of the protocols to a T, the fact of the matter is we're hearing from workers that the people that are going out right now and that want to dine indoors are not people who have taken the virus seriously — and certainly don't take seriously the health and safety of the workers that are serving them," Bussell says.

The group is packaging the masks for distribution for people working in bars, restaurants, and cafés in Washtenaw County. Bussell says they're reaching out to businesses to see if they need masks, but people can also request the masks by filling out a form or emailing the group at siwa32020@gmail.com.

Bussell says they're in talks to receive more mask donations from other private donors. They also have plans to offer help for people struggling to navigate Michigan's unemployment system and hope to distribute food to service industry workers who need it.

Over the holidays, the group raised more than $10,000 to help nearly 100 service industry workers in the area.

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