There is a very real and critical role played by 24-hour breakfast joint Waffle House in FEMA’s determination of how bad a disaster is.
The “Waffle House Index” is green when the full menu is served. When Waffle House serves a limited menu, the index is yellow. When it closes, the index is red. Waffle House even has a storm center to monitor hurricanes.
— Waffle House News (@WaffleHouseNews) September 11, 2018
The index was born out of the business’ legendary storm preparedness. But there’s a dark side to this seemingly lighthearted measure for the impact of natural disasters: The employees.
When a mandatory evacuation is ordered in advance of a natural disaster, as Governor Henry McMaster (R-South Carolina) did in advance of Hurricane Florence, low-wage and hourly employees face a dire decision: safety or work.
“If his ‘mandatory evacuation’ isn’t going to make my restaurant close, it’s kind of a moot point for me,” said Kristen Kornbluth, a food runner at Indaco in Charleston, South Carolina.
Kombluth isn’t just worried about losing a few days of pay from evacuation. The cost of shelter, out-of-town meals, even the gas needed to evacuate can reach levels that she, on $13 an hour, might not be able to afford. And she makes well above the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
And then there’s the risk that she could lose her job if she evacuates. In much of the United States, it is entirely lawful to fire employees for complying with mandatory evacuation orders and thus missing work. Unions and certain state laws can help fight those terminations, but the battle can be costly in terms of both time and money if the termination can be fought at all. The Reddit legal assistance thread on Hurricane Florence warns that those fired likely have no legal recourse.
“There’s no way I’m going to leave,” said Kombluth. “It’ll make me look not dependable.”
The North Carolina Labor Department cautioned that not even a state of emergency like the one issued by Governor Roy Cooper (D-North Carolina) — which specifically asks residents to avoid the roads — would protect employees.
“Even if the governor declares a state of emergency, employers can require employees to report to work,” said Mary Katherine Revels, public information officer for the Department.
Waffle House did not respond to questions regarding their methodology for determining when to close a store in the path of a disaster. Waffle Houses in Wilmington, North Carolina remained open at least through Thursday. Wilmington’s mayor has never seen a storm like Florence.
It is also unknown if Kombluth eventually evacuated. Florence made landfall far up the coast, and the streets were bustling with Friday business for Kombluth’s employer.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.