As the waters of the Mississippi River and its tributaries rise and crest in the worst flooding the Midwest has seen in decades, Govs. Jay Nixon of Missouri and Bruce Rauner of Illinois have declared states of emergency. At least 31 people have died because of the floods, caused by nearly triple the normal rainfall since Nov. 1. Communities are being evacuated. Business as usual is impossible. Oil refineries and sewage treatment plants have been forced offline. Forecasters expect flooding farther south in the coming weeks, in Tennessee and Mississippi. But the real measure of this crisis will be whether all the local Waffle Houses will stay open.
If a Waffle House closes, you know things are dire. The Georgia-based, 24-hour, low-cost breakfast chain has developed a sophisticated emergency response system that allows it to keep its doors open. In Joplin, Missouri, for instance, Waffle House kept serving food immediately after a 2011 tornado devastated the town. When a Waffle House closed temporarily in Columbia, South Carolina, during the deadly flooding there in October 2015, it made the Twitter feed of New York Times reporter Alan Blinder.
This is all great publicity for Waffle House. But any emergency preparedness plan depends on the willingness of employees to risk their necks driving on flooded roads or around downed power lines and to leave families at home to show up and serve food or do other work through what may be the worst experience of their lives.
Researchers recognize that workers are the first line of defense in a crisis for any place of employment — be it a corporation, hospital, university or nonprofit organization. As climate change advances, workers in many cities and towns will be asked to brave harsh weather conditions or the wreckage left by devastating storms to keep their employers functioning. Dan Tepen, who normally takes a ferry on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to get to his job from his home near Brussels, Illinois, told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Jan. 2 that this week’s floods have forced him to drive 75 miles each way to work instead. One would think that such dedicated workers would be treasured assets; instead, they are often considered low skilled and are paid only the minimum wage.
This is especially true of workers in the health care industry, who are often considered essential employees and who may be required to stay and work extra shifts during a disaster. Dr. Flavio Casoy, a Manhattan psychiatrist and former executive vice president of the Committee of Interns and Residents, the doctors’ union, is concerned that health care workers who are on the front line of any public health emergency have unmet needs that could make a crisis worse.
“When you mandate that someone stay, you have to provide for their basic needs and allow them to take care of their family,” he says, citing the need for beds and food to be made available just for staff. During a major snowstorm in New York City in 2010, he saw that hospital employees needed to be able to be excused from work to call home and to figure out child care and other family needs. “Often,” he adds, “that time is not protected, and people are sneaking around trying to do this on the fly. In the hospital, that creates problems, like insufficient staffing on the unit when folks are on the stairway calling home.”
Beyond the physical and support needs, Casoy says, it is critical to have clear policies in place for compensating people who work heroically through a disaster. “How are you going to pay people?” he asks. He says that when roads are dangerous or impassable, many employees who clock out are unable to leave. “The folks who are mandated to stay, they can get overtime. The folks who aren’t able to leave, are they going to be paid? Are they entitled to overtime? This is time at work.”
Low-wage and hourly workers are increasingly speaking up about the fact that they cannot survive on $8 or $9 per hour. The Fight for $15 movement, which supports a minimum wage of $15 per hour and is backed by the Service Employees International Union, has built a broad base of support among fast food workers and has recently expanded to include home health workers. At an April 15 Fight for $15 demonstration in New York, Wendy’s employee Jacqueline Martincic told CNN, “I’m out here because I don’t make a living wage. I only make $8.75 an hour. That’s not enough for me to survive on.” Waiters and waitresses at Waffle House, according to the website Glassdoor, make an average of just $13,262 per year, including tips.
Even in the nonunion South, companies and public health departments that depend heavily on a low-wage workforce should reconsider how they compensate those workers. Disaster preparation expert Dr. Daniel Barnett of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health called for a similar evaluation in a 2012 article in the journal BioMedCentral, writing, “LHDs [local health departments] may wish to re-examine their policies on employee requirements for responding to different emergencies in order to increase potential likelihood of response.”
A natural disaster presents an opportunity for ordinary working people to become heroes by showing up to work in adverse conditions and by responding with their best selves. But it shouldn’t come at such a high cost to them.
“The actual stress of going through the disaster has to be addressed,” Casoy says. “If a staff member can’t find their family, is the expectation that they will still do their job? You have to take care of people. Especially low-income folks who are probably operating at a higher level of stress.”
Which brings us back to Waffle House. The chain’s low wages keep its employees perpetually vulnerable. But when they act together to respond in a crisis, their team efforts earn their employer the distinction of being one of the best-prepared companies in the U.S. The Fight for $15 movement and unions such as the Committee of Interns and Residents provide a glimpse into how these workers could harness such collective power to make sure that they and their families are adequately compensated and cared for — before heading out into the oncoming storm.