On a normal Tuesday, Summer Pendle takes orders of duck fat fries, bluefish rillettes and roasted chicken from guests at the dining room tables made from salvaged bowling alley lanes at Northern Spy Food Co. in New York City’s East Village.
On Tuesday, October 30, Pendle found herself nowhere near normal: stranded in California due to airport closures and out of work for the unforeseen future.
“It is hard being stranded in California and watching your city crumble,” she said.
That day after Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, an estimated 7.9 million businesses and households up and down the East Coast – including Northern Spy Food Co. – were left without power. As of November 6, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said approximately 400,000 New Yorkers were similarly still without power.
As electricity returned this weekend and local businesses began to regain their footing, Sandy's impact had a serious ripple effect - especially for hourly wage earners in the restaurant industry, like Pendle, who lost up to an entire week of pay.
Pendle, who makes about $5 an hour before gratuity, says she “absolutely relies” on the tips that guests leave.
However, for tipped employees, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers are allowed to pay servers as little as $2.13 an hour so long as the employee's tips add up to the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
“We are minimum wage workers. We often live paycheck to paycheck or shift to shift. A tragedy like this comes along and you really feel the sting of it all,” said Pendle, who typically works at the restaurant Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, plus additional shifts for other employees.
Like many in the foodservice industry, Pendle doesn’t have health insurance and isn’t granted any paid sick leave days. According to a 2010 report by ROC United, a restaurant workforce advocacy group, approximately 90% of restaurant workers said their employer did not provide health insurance, while 87.7% of those workers surveyed did not have paid sick days.
“A disaster like Sandy comes along and I'm out of luck. If I get really sick, I'm ruined,” she said.
On November 5, a week later than planned, Pendle finally boarded her flight from California to LaGuardia Airport. When her flight was cancelled, she didn’t know when power would be restored in the East Village and rescheduled it to the best of her ability. Luckily, she was visiting family and able to reduce some of the additional cost by staying with her grandmother.
As stories of struggling eateries and their employees came to light, industry heavyweights like Anthony Bourdain and Danny Meyer have encouraged those with healthy wallets to eat downtown and tip heavily.
“Just cause a little DIY place has got its power back on, doesn’t mean the bleeding has stopped,” wrote Bourdain yesterday in an op-ed on Eatocracy.
Restaurateur Danny Meyer tweeted: “Among many ways to help post-Sandy: IF you're able, leave 2x your usual tip for next week, as many workers lost minimum 1 week of income.”
Here, minimum is the key word. Many establishments, especially those closer to the water, sustained enough damage to shutter them until further notice.
Jen Grelier, who works at Made Fresh Daily in New York City’s South Street Seaport, voluntarily went to the bakeshop the Wednesday after Sandy to help the owner clean up and throw things away.
“Our owner let us know that it could be anywhere from a few weeks to over a month before we were ready to be open, and therefore the front-of-house staff would be out of work until then,” she said.
Grelier said most of the restaurants in the area were staffed by young people, struggling to make ends meet on hourly wages and tips.
“I've spoken with a lot of my friends who work in the area, and we all agree that we aren't sure where the rent will come from this month,” said Grelier, who filed for unemployment shortly after learning Made Fresh Daily was closed until further notice.
According to The National Employment Law Project, people can apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance if “1) the individual must be out of work as a ‘direct result’ of a major disaster; and 2) the individual does not qualify for regular unemployment insurance from any state.”
“We were all encouraged by employers - and worried parents - to do so. I still have to wait two weeks before receiving a check, but it's better than no income at all,” said Grelier.
Until then, she waits.
Outside NYC and want to help? CNN's Impact Your World has a great list of resources that could use your time and money. Thinking about coming to New York to eat? Follow the Twitter hashtag #dineoutNYC to see the latest charity efforts and open restaurants and don't forget to #EatDownTipUp.