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    Although I work at Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) in Washington DC, I have the privilege to still live at the Jersey Shore.  So when Hurricane Sandy hit the shore so hard about a month ago, I had a front row seat to the destruction of the homes, jobs, businesses, beaches and lives; along the incredible devastation left behind.  

    Hurricane Sandy hit the economic security of almost all the residents of the Jersey Shore.  There are so many workers whose economic security (some of which was very precarious before the storm) has been negatively impacted.  In particular I think about the restaurant workers I have interviewed for my research over the past 10 years; many of whom were not able to work in the week or so after the storm because of prolonged power outages or damages to their homes, cars or places of work. And there will be workers who will be not employed for a long time, as the restaurants and hotels that worked at just a day before the storm have just washed out to the Atlantic Ocean.  Be it at Sallie Tees in Monmouth Beach; Matisse in Belmar; or the waterfront restaurants that line the beaches at Pier Village in Long Branch or the iconic Asbury Park boardwalk, our restaurant workers were impacted in the short term, and many will continue to be in the long term.  

    Research WOW has conducted with the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) found that often restaurant servers were far from economic security even before the storm.  New Jersey servers earn a base pay of $2.13 an hour; depending on tips from customers for the bulk of their income.  Using our Basic Economic Security Tables (BEST) we found that nationally eighty-eight percent of adult servers who worked in 2011 had individual earnings below the BEST threshold for their families. Of these individuals, 83 percent are women. Looking across gender, WOW found that 90 percent of female servers who worked in the last 12 months had individual earnings below the security lined.  This means that nine out of ten female servers were not paid enough to enjoy basic economic peace of mind. Among males, this figure stands at 74 percent.  And, what happens when the server is the main breadwinner?  Eighty-one percent of households headed by an adult server have total household income below the BEST.  And women head 80 percent of these households—51 percent single, and 26 percent single mothers.   So now add on the loss of weeks’ or months’ work, and you have an economic catastrophe for these families.

    However amongst this economic devastation, I had the opportunity to volunteer with New Jersey’s Assistant Commissioner of Labor, Employment and Training, Mary Ellen Clark and Monmouth County’s Workforce Investment Board Director, Eileen Higgins, as they and their staff went to storm shelters throughout New Jersey, armed with laptop computers to sign individuals’ up for Disaster Unemployment Insurance.   Disaster unemployment insurance is federal program that provides income support for workers who were not able to work during the storm, because their place of employment was closed or they could not get to work because of the storm. This program is a life saver to provide needed income for these workers.  And the presence of workforce officials and staff being deployed throughout the state to the places where people were---not counting on people to know about the programs or assuming they could just go to a One Stop Center---was amazing to see.  The idea of employment programs going to the people in the field allows for workforce development to be integrated into our communities—at a time when the income supports are a matter of survival.  This was graphically illustrated to me when I met a waitress who was down to her last $20 at one of the shelters.  She began to cry when we told her about the disaster unemployment insurance.  

    Of course the disaster unemployment meets a critical immediate need, but many of the restaurant workers will need longer term support to move toward a semblance of economic security in the months and years to come. After such massive devastation, the focus will be on reconstruction and job creation, however we need to be careful not to fall back into a belief system that “any job is a good job.”  We need to increase minimum wages; ensure health benefits; provide paid sick days and family leave programs; and enact policies that provide workers with some schedule control.   Perhaps one positive thing that can emerge from a storm that devastated our restaurants and hotels is that we can have renewed attention to the economic security of all the workers who will once again return to serve us our breakfasts, dinners and margaritas on the Jersey Shore and throughout the country.

For the report “Tipped Over The Edge – Gender Inequality in the Restaurant Industry visit: http://rocunited.org/...

For information on Disaster Unemployment Insurance visit: https://njsuccess.dol.state.nj.us/...

Originally posted to marygatta on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 12:07 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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