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Local initiatives aim to help restaurant, service workers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The local United Way hopes to help those it sees as most impacted by the recent Elk River chemical leak -- the service workers who have lost part of their paycheck during the nine-county "do-not-use" water advisory.

John Ballengee, the president of the United Way of Central West Virginia, said the agency is establishing a West Virginia Emergency Fund for workers who have lost "30, 40 or even 50 hours" of work during the emergency.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department ordered all restaurants and bars with a health license to close following the chemical leak, which contaminated the water supply of the state's largest water utility, West Virginia American Water. A limited number of facilities have since been allowed to reopen.

"We want to be able to ask the community for support -- a neighbors-helping-neighbors kind of thing, to assist people who have lost wages as a result of the water crisis," Ballengee said. "We want to try to help them because they've lost so many hours of pay during this, and we doubt their utility bills are going to decrease just because of that, with maybe the exception of their water bill."

The fund will be similar to other utility aid funds, and will be available to help workers with water, sewage, electric, gas and other household bills, Ballengee said. Applicants will need to prove their employment status and that they lost work during the crisis, he said. If they can, they'll get a certain amount, based on their need and the amount of money the United Way is able to raise.

"The individuals that we're targeting are the folks who are working in the restaurant or service industry and are, in most cases, already dealing with limited wages," Ballengee said. "This might be a second or third job, in fact, so they're affected more than somebody whose office closed and who works for a law firm or a bank."

Ballengee said the United Way will probably have a cap on the amount it is able to disburse to each person, depending on how well the initiative is funded.

"It will be interesting to see how actively engaged the community becomes in reaching out to help each other," he said. "This is really what the United Way is all about; our focus is dealing with people's unexpected crises."

The United Way hopes to have a sizeable emergency fund in place within the next week or two, and Ballengee hopes the agency will be able to announce that the fund is open for applications by Jan. 27.

After that, the United Way would partner with other area agencies, including Covenant House, the Salvation Army, Mountain Mission, Heart and Hand and EnAct of Putnam County, to help distribute funds to the nine counties impacted by the leak.

"The situation we find in the communities we serve is that once individuals and residents find out that there's a need, they respond," Ballengee said. "There are people here who are struggling, and if we can help them through a 30-day period, it may be insignificant to the people contributing, but it's very significant to those who are receiving the support."

People can support the West Virginia Emergency Fund by calling 304-340-3500 or visiting the United Way of Central West Virginia, One United Way Square, Charleston. Donations made online will only go to the United Way's general fund, but credit card information can be processed over the phone, Ballengee said.

The emergency fund isn't the area's only effort to help those in the service sector. Charleston City Councilman Andy Richardson, along with Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha; Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha; Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha; and Sen. Chris Walters, R-Kanawha; hope to encourage affected residents to "Turn Up the Tips" at restaurants that were closed by the chemical leak.

"We recognize that the restaurant owners, workers -- there were a lot of victims in this, but my livelihood was not affected. Their livelihood was affected," Richardson said. "We identified a way for people to support their local restaurants through this, and we consider this a nine-county initiative. Spread the word: Turn on the water and turn up the tips."

The group has developed posters for its campaign to remind restaurant patrons about "Turn Up the Tips," and the initiative is something Richardson hopes will help residents who already may be living "paycheck to paycheck."

"We have bound together as a community in an extraordinary way during this emergency, but when the water starts flowing, for some people the emergency is not over," Richardson said. "For those who have been temporarily unable to work -- primarily in the service businesses such as restaurants and hotels -- we need to help them get back to where they were." Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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