Thi Dam, who just started as an assistant at South African restaurant Peli Peli’s corporate office three weeks ago, saw water pouring into her vehicle and apartment on August 25, in the hours after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston. “We woke up and the water had risen to the middle of the first floor,” Dam says. “We started packing our things and went to a friend’s apartment on the third floor, but it kept raining heavily and the water kept rising. I saw helicopters and boats coming to rescue the residents, and that’s when I felt so panicked and scared. We had to wait 12 hours for our turn to get to higher land.”
Dam was one of more than 9,000 Harvey evacuees sheltered at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, where volunteers from the American Red Cross and other relief organizations centered their efforts. When Dam returned to her apartment a few days later, it was totally destroyed — the walls were falling down, furniture was broken, rooms were infested with insects and covered in mud.
Dam’s story isn’t uncommon. The devastation in Houston is extensive: At one point, somewhere near 85 percent of the city was under water. At present, Harris County officials estimate that upwards of 136,000 homes were damaged in the storm. Harvey’s economic impact in Houston is expected to top $180 billion, and those numbers are rising. And restaurant employees — nearly 330,000 Houstonians work in the leisure and hospitality industry — are particularly vulnerable in events like natural disasters, especially when restaurants are forced to close their doors en masse.
Texan servers, the majority of whom are paid the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour, can’t earn tips when a restaurant’s doors are closed — or when people can’t afford to dine out. Most back-of-house employees are paid on an hourly basis, which means that wages lost during a restaurant closure can be financially disastrous. Health insurance coverage is also woefully lacking in the industry, resulting in steep medical bills and the prospect of being unable to return to work for an extended period of time if injured in the storm.
Considering this lack of infrastructure, much of the burden in assisting these employees has fallen on restaurant owners. According to Dam, it was an employee at Peli Peli that called the emergency truck that eventually rescued her; after returning to her mud-covered apartment and collecting everything that was still usable, she was offered refuge in the home of one of her coworkers.
At Peli Peli, owner Thomas Nguyen has been busy establishing a game plan for helping his employees get back on their feet — all while re-opening his three Houston-area eateries, feeding first responders, and preparing food for shelters. “We anticipate that a substantial number of our hourly employees will have issues making ends meet at the end of the month,” Nguyen says. “We are hoping to pay 80 percent of hourly pay for this week, and setting up grants and loans for our teams.” According to Nguyen, those loans would be interest-free, and repaid on a timeline that fits each employee’s needs. Along with financial and housing assistance, Nguyen is also working on finding loaner vehicles for employees left without cars.
“I love that place to the moon and back because of everything they do,” Dam says. “Witnessing the way they care for each individual touched and melted my heart. They kept calling and texting to make sure I was safe, gave me clothes and hugs. I truly appreciate now why they call their employees their family members.”
Isis Hernandez-Lopez, a student at the University of Houston and employee at Burger-Chan, faces a different, though pressing, problem. Hernandez-Lopez’s home is safe, but her vehicle was totally destroyed in the flooding. “The water reached more than halfway up my car, and there was really nothing I could do about it,” she says. “It looked like a river, basically. Every car in my apartment complex’s parking lot was full of water, and the only way anyone could reach their car if they wanted to was by swimming to it.” While she watched her car flood, Hernandez-Lopez took in a next-door neighbor and her one-month-old child, who left their apartment after the waters were neck-high.
Unlike other cities with robust train networks and public transit infrastructure, Houston is a car city, and it’s difficult for many employees to get to work without wheels. The city also occupies a massive geographic area, more than 639 square miles, including a number of densely populated suburbs. The lack of public transit often affects restaurant industry employees: In April, a staffing manager at employment agency Robert Half International told the Houston Chronicle that multiple job candidates cited not being able to afford a car or housing near the city’s buzziest neighborhoods as reasons why they’re struggling to find work.
Post-Harvey, Hernandez-Lopez felt equally supported by her employer. Even though she’s currently without a vehicle, Burger-Chan’s owners have kept in touch, and reassured her that her job is waiting for her. “Diane and Will [Feng] have been so supportive and kind throughout this whole situation,” she says. “They made sure that we had enough food throughout the days we were stuck at home, and have also given me some time to try to get back on my feet and find a means of transportation before I head back to work.” Right now, Hernandez-Lopez is raising money on GoFundMe to buy a new car.
Hospitality union UNITE Here represents more than 3,000 restaurant and hotel employees in the greater Houston area, and around 250 of its members have experienced “catastrophic losses,” according to Texas organizing director Danna Schneider. UNITE Here arrived soon after Harvey made landfall, and the organization has since been delivering groceries and checking up on its members.
Once those immediate needs are met, though, UNITE Here’s long-term goal is to ensure that its members are treated fairly by their employers after the storm. “We certainly will not stop fighting until it is true that nobody loses their job because they couldn’t get to work or because of some residual effect of this disaster,” Schneider says. “Depending on what the employers do, we’re preparing to provide step-by-step assistance for unemployment benefits if the employers don’t pay lost wages. We’re going to go person-by-person to 3,000 people to make sure they can get through that process.”
Outside of massive hospitality operations and chain restaurants, even smaller restaurants have measures in place to ensure that their staff can stay afloat even if the doors are closed. Jennifer Caswell, who runs multiple restaurants in Houston with her husband Bryan, notes that her restaurants have taken out business interruption insurance, which ensures that employees get paid even if they’re not working.
The Caswells’ flagship restaurant Reef was damaged extensively in the storm, which meant that its owners were at the restaurant almost daily during the rains, documenting their losses to ensure that the insurance company will pay up. Claims have been filed, and Caswell expects that assistance to arrive before she has to make her next payroll.
“I came in and documented everything, to a very obsessive level, because I’m so worried about taking care of my people,” she says. “When the rain would let up a little bit, I was documenting the actual rain falling from the ceiling, taking photos of the puddles on the floor. At least half of our staff were impacted in some way, and these people are my family members. I know them, I know their children, I know their stories. It’s going to be a struggle because our margins are slim — restaurateurs are not rich — but to be able to take care of my employees is extremely important to me.”
Right now, many of Caswell’s employees are getting in their hours by helping the restaurant with the relief effort. Despite taking extensive damage in the dining room during the storm, Caswell’s Midtown restaurant Reef has served as a central command kitchen, where staff who were able to come in worked alongside volunteers all hours of the day to make breakfast tacos and assemble sandwiches for the 16,000 Texans in area shelters.
In the coming weeks, many will have opportunities to take jobs at the Caswells’ other restaurants, like the forthcoming Oxbow 7, which is expected to make its debut this month. “There will be jobs here,” says Caswell. “Our management is here daily helping us get people fed, and our servers are volunteering to help. We can place them.” She’s also fielding offers from her chef friends at restaurants across the country, like James Beard Award winner John Currence, who’s offering gigs to qualified chefs and cooks at his Oxbow, Mississippi restaurant City Grocery.
Outside of the city, restaurants and bars across the country are raising funds that will directly benefit Houston’s service industry employees. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Houston chef Alex Brennan-Martin raised more than $1 million to benefit hospitality workers in New Orleans. Now, the Commander’s Palace family of restaurants, which operates a Houston steakhouse called Brennan’s (Brennan-Martin is the owner), is paying the city back.
“As the storm was hitting Houston, we knew after hearing the amounts of rainfall and seeing the flooding that we had to do something,” says Darla Fisackerly, marketing manager for Commander’s Palace. “It’s what Alex and the Texas fund did for us during Katrina. We started working to get this up and running as soon as we could. We know what they’re going through, but there are a lot more people in Houston who have been affected.”
In conjunction with the Greater New Orleans Foundation, Brennan and Commander’s Palace are currently raising funds that will be directly distributed via small grants of about $2,000 or $3,000 to restaurant employees that are struggling after the storm. “Having gone through Katrina, we know that people are paying rent or a mortgage on a house that’s flooded while paying for somewhere else to say in the meantime,” Fisackerly says. “Cash is extremely important, especially in the beginning. The idea is to get the money into their hands as soon as we can.”
What will come next for Houston’s restaurants and the employees who keep them going is really anyone’s guess. The coming weeks will be undoubtedly difficult for restaurant owners and staff, many of whom are facing massive rebuilding projects, both personally and professionally. Though it will likely take months to assess the damage, industry experts are already predicting that Harvey will hit Houston’s restaurant scene particularly hard, likely causing at least a few closures in the coming months. “It’s going to have a major impact on the industry,” financial analyst Bonnie Riggs told CNBC. “Even if these restaurants are able to be open or if some are able to open up later on down the road, the demand is just not going to be there.”
But considering how quickly the city’s restaurant scene has rebounded so far, Houston won’t be down for long. “We know we have to face some difficulties like replacing our vehicles and distributing food to people in need,” Dam says. “But I believe in my team, and I believe our city will be bright at the end.”