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Rep. Blumenauer pushes for more money to replenish a fund that drew three times more in requests.

PMG FILE PHOTO - U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, is hoping to re-up a fund to support restaurants suffering through the pandemic. 
Ricky Gomez was one of the 960 Oregon restaurateurs who benefited last year from federal grants spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer — and Gomez supports the Democrat's push for more money this year.

"I can tell you it has been a lifeline," Gomez, owner of the Cuban-themed bar Palomar in Southeast Portland, said Tuesday, Feb. 8. "I would not be speaking on this call today if I had not received that grant. My business would be closed. Even with this assistance, it has been a struggle."

Gomez said the aid enabled him to maintain benefits for staff, pay off past-due rent and equip an area to allow outdoor dining. He said others like him can use the help.

"It's not only getting us through the next six months or a year, we have to make up for 22 months of losses that all these people have had," he said.

Gomez spoke as Blumenauer renews his quest to replenish a restaurant revitalization fund whose $28.6 billion went out the door almost as soon as the Small Business Administration opened its online portals. The money was contained in the American Rescue Plan Act, the $2 trillion pandemic recovery plan signed by President Joe Biden last year.

Blumenauer originated the fund with help from Portland restaurateurs in mid-2020. His original goal was $120 billion; the Small Business Administration got requests far exceeding the $28.6 billion available.

Blumenauer said he has lined up 227 bipartisan sponsors in the House — more than a majority of 218 — plus the support of the Democratic chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee and the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee.

He did not specify legislation he hoped to be able to attach his request for the additional money. But he said his efforts have the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Still-ailing sector

As part of the leisure and hospitality business sector, restaurants were hit hard by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — when virtually all were forced to resort to takeout service or close altogether — and the subsequent Delta and Omicron variants. The Oregon Employment Department reports that it is one of five sectors that each have at least 10,000 unfilled jobs.

Blumenauer said this sector employs more than its share of women, minorities and immigrants.

"They need this to be able to weather the storm," he said. "They are the cornerstone of every livable community. It is an opportunity to anchor every single community with restaurants that are part of the very fabric of the community."

They were joined by U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat whose district covers part of the East Bay area in California, and two other restaurateurs — one of who is still seeking federal aid.

"It breaks my heart to see a restaurant (in Fremont) I know so well and the owner has worked so hard to be affected," Swalwell said.

Swalwell said 90,000 independent restaurants already have closed during the pandemic, and a survey indicates that 85% of those remaining fear they may have to close without more aid.

The original program had carveouts for women, veterans, and racial and ethnic minorities. National chains are excluded from participation.

Blumenauer said he hopes the Small Business Administration would start with applications already on file, assuming they continue to require aid, and not have restaurant owners start over.

"We are working with the Small Business Administration to be able to take advantage of what people have done what they needed to do in their applications. It hasn't changed their circumstances," he said. "We would like to make it as simple as possible to be able for them to utilize it. It was frustrating that people got bumped out of line."

Blumenauer and Swalwell spoke as a group of Democrats renewed their own push for an end to sub-minimum wages — including a credit for tips subtracted from the minimum wage — and an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour. The tip credit is applicable in 43 states, but not in Oregon and California, where the minimum wage is close to or at $15. (Oregon has a three-tiered system; the Portland metro minimum is $14.75 per hour, and the others are lower.)

Of Oregon's neighbors, only Idaho has a tip credit and the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Blumenauer said the issues are separate to him.

"The pieces are coming together" for more restaurant aid, he said "We don't want to complicate it unnecessarily."

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