Despite slowdowns in customer traffic, lower tips, and higher prices for food and gas, restaurant workers have not decreased their contributions to company-sponsored employee relief funds, though some chains see more staff requests for financial assistance.
“The most applications we’ve had in a year is 58; at the end of October we had 65,” said Jessica Newman, executive director for the Rock Bottom Foundation.
The foundation is a nonprofit arm of Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Brewery Restaurants, which employs about 7,500 people in its 102 restaurants which include Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery , the Chop-House, and Old Chicago.
“Because these employees are struggling with other external economic factors—people not coming in and tipping at the same level, or their hours are not what they have been in the past—they are falling behind,” Newman said. “They’ve not been able to earn the wages they have been earning and have to ask for help.”
At least a dozen restaurant chains have employee relief funds. Most are administered through nonprofit foundations. Workers, who are the main contributors, donate through payroll deductions. Companies, vendors and franchisees also can make tax deductible donations. The funds are then doled out to employees in crisis, for such events as a death in the family, a fire, a medical emergency or natural disaster.
Amounts given per employee vary from $500 to $2,500 or more.
The Whataburger  Family Foundation gave $625,000 to 2,100 employees and their families who were victims of hurricanes Ike and Gustav this summer, said Marianne Dowdy, vice president of human resources for Corpus Christi, Texas-based Whataburger Inc. The chain is operator or franchisor of more than 700 units in 10 states.
About 65 percent of the chain’s 20,000 employees in company-owned restaurants contribute to the foundation, Dowdy said. The foundation also grants scholarships to employees and their children. The company disbursed $110,000 in college scholarships to 57 recipients for the fall semester this year, the most since the foundation was launched in 2001.
“We have not seen a reduction in employees wanting to contribute to the fund,” she said. “It’s now ingrained in our culture.”
Employee relief funds can create an atmosphere of caring and concern, according to restaurant human resources executives.
“It is something people do look on very favorably,” said Bill Stretberger, vice president of team member resources for Red Robin Gourmet Burgers , the chain of more than 400 casual-dining restaurants, based in Greenwood Village, Colo. Red Robin uses its Giving Fund to help employees in need and offer scholarships.
“It causes a lot of excitement when you go above and beyond,” Stretberger said.
The Domino’s Pizza  Partners Foundation, which helps between 1,000 and 1,500 workers every year, has seen about a 10-percent increase in requests for help, said Dana Stearns, executive director of the foundation, which was started in 1986. The nonprofit organization is housed at the pizza chain’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich. Any of the 170,000 employees of the more than 8,700 franchised or company-owned Domino’s restaurants can apply for assistance.
“Fortunately we’ve seen funds holding steady this year,” Stearns said. “Every year it incrementally seems to go up. This year is the same pace as last year, but I’m not disappointed with that, considering how things are in the economy.”