When Waiting for Change Isn’t Enough:  The Camouflaged Crisis in the Service Industry 

When my tables ask me how I landed in Texas, I just tell them, “It’s a long story,” and move on to the wine list. The story I don’t tell them isn’t exactly one to share lightly, as a palate cleanser between appetizer and entrée. It isn’t exactly about a string of bad luck, or what precisely lead me to pile all of my possessions into my car and drive across the country. It isn’t exactly about camping. And it isn’t exactly about how to survive on two Saltines and a clementine per day. It is about waiting tables. And sustainable deprivation. And pride. And swallowing pride. It’s about when I was homeless, working fifty+  hours a week, and learning to lie to live.

——-

According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Denton County experienced record precipitation in the Fall quarter of 2010, with an average of 8.5 inches of rain per month, and at least “light drizzles” daily for sixteen straight days in a row, another Denton County record. 

I don’t remember the number of inches rained or for how many days it lasted, but I do remember fruitlessly wringing out a sleeping bag that never stopped smelling like mildew, practically living in a blessedly dry Laundromat, and stomping through puddles day after day looking for a job. My camping stove had finally stopped working, the muffler detached from the VW after one too many drives up the bumpy gravel road to my campsite, and the tent’s tarp just gave up one day and blew away. That was the fall that I finally got a job at the new IHOP opening in Highland Village.

I remember the rain beating down in steady splats as I sat cross-legged in the driest (least wet) corner of the tent, balancing a flashlight in between my shoulder and ear, memorizing every detail of IHOP’s menu for the test I had to pass before waiting tables on my own. Later, I would credit the boredom of day-long precipitation with my 100% on the menu test–an IHOP first–and when they fired me, I would cite that 100% among countless other reasons to let me keep my job despite my transient living situation.

In those first months, I remember picking up shifts, any shift, every shift, so I wouldn’t have to return to that mildewed canvas heap before nightfall, before absolute exhaustion set in and allowed me to sleep. I remember working doubles on a daily basis, thinking not of aching feet, only that this meant two free shift meals instead of one. I used to arrive hours early, stay hours late, cloistered with pot after pot of fresh, free coffee–tucked into a booth watching the rainfall, silently staring at bum after bum being turned away for asking for the same luxury.

According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics’ study in 2010, an estimated 18-25% of employees are, have been, or will be homeless at some point while working in the service industry. That number was projected to rise. So statistically, if you dine out just once per month this year, chances are more than one of your servers has been or is homeless. 

The hardest part about getting a job when you’re living in a tent is the application. Address: none, Telephone Number: none, References: none. But to get ahead of what my family thought was a year-long, Thoreau-esque camping trip, I needed first and last month’s rent, plus enough for a security deposit, plus a checking account from which to withdraw it–another impossibility without an address. On top of that savings goal (winter was coming fast), I needed money for gas to get to this hypothetical job, and to pay the increasingly impossible five dollars/day camping fee that enabled me to use the primitive campsite’s lot for my tent and few possessions, shower facilities, and water spigot.  And so lying became a means to an end. My address became just a random series of numbers followed by an innocuous name like Center Street and my phone was suddenly and conveniently “stolen.” The black slacks, shoes, and white button-down uniform requirements were casualties of what those in retail refer to as shrinkage, and my answer to every personal question elicited either a complete lie, or “It’s complicated.” Despite my desperate half-truths and obvious inconsistencies, my 24/7 availability and eagerness to start work were too good for any franchise owner to refuse, and I was hired.

In 2003, building upon previous efforts of the Job Training for the Homeless Demonstration Program (1988-95), the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development partnered together to launch the Ending Chronic Homelessness through Employment and Housing (ECHEH) initiative. In this five-year initiative, ECHEH developed sustainable and effective partnerships between housing providers, homeless assistance agencies, and the mainstream workforce system. In 2008, then-president George W. Bush elected to discontinue the program for reasons still “forthcoming.”

As time progressed, I got sloppy. Employees would peek into my overstuffed car, find me asleep in a booth after work, or notice my increased anxiety as storm clouds rolled in. Slowly and with caution, coworkers facing similar struggles began to emerge. There was Narciso, the prep chef who lived in a van parked behind the restaurant, who ventured occasionally to the adjacent Wal Mart for use of the restroom or the comforts of central air. There was Anna, who was living in her car after being assaulted by two of her five male roommates, with whom she had been sharing a three-bedroom apartment. And Michelle, a single Mom of two who–as a highschool dropout without health insurance or help from deadbeat dad #1 or #2–struggled to pay for her children’s multiple medications. Michelle and her two boys ended up eventually sharing my campsite with me, where we made it as fun and homey for the boys as we could, and listed the local Kroger as Michelle’s home address so the boys could continue going to school without interference. Eventually, Michelle and I started to pool resources with our fellow transient campers, bums, and layabouts–we’d share supplies, help with duct tape repairs, and although we couldn’t loan our neighbors a cup of sugar, Michelle and I had plenty of IHOP’s sugar packets to go around. Over sips of warm liquor from a shared flask, we learned that the majority of our neighbors not only worked, but some were enrolled in school, and a couple were veterans who just couldn’t make it. So our little community took care of its members and maintained what little honor we could as we begged, borrowed, and stole–Narciso would slip me an extra shift meal, Michelle and I would arrange carpools, and the Fische family in the Hooverville next door to mine would watch my things while I was at work in exchange for the occasional night of babysitting or a ride to the laundromat.

According to last January’s homeless count (mgcop.org), 38% of homeless adults in families and 20% of homeless single adults were working at least part time. But rent, even for a modest one-bedroom apartment that includes basic utilities–would leave that worker with about $44 dollars/month for all other expenses. Even with the service industry’s lucrative tips, there isn’t enough to make ends meet, since according to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are not required to pay “tipped employees” more than $2.13/hour in direct wages. And if the total number of tips earned per pay period exceeds minimum wage, the employers aren’t required to pay you anything at all. This means that one $200 day and one $10 day even out just enough to render you without a paystub, without any sort of supplemental income, and without financial fingerprints with which to build an identity. 

As fall moved toward winter, I worked more and more, still struggling with the balance between immediate needs and long-term goals. At the same time, the typical attitude checks, shitty tips, and forced smiles didn’t make for a sustainable career–when you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you start to think that how you’re treated and what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth. After one more infuriating shift of senior BOGOs, Kids Eat Free tables, and drunken tippers who can’t do math, I was pulled over on my way back to camp for out-of-state, out-of-date and out-of-luck registration, license, insurance, and inspection. The ultimate humiliation was seeing my address listed on the citation: Vagrant–Homeless.

My car was impounded and I was faced with paying months’ worth of savings in fines and car maintenance, and starting from square one to get out of Tent City. Suddenly, I was caught in an endless loop of daily increasing fines in impound, a demand for multiple renewals, and no home address or bank account to counter either problem. Michelle and the rest of the camping community fled with the arrival of the police, and I don’t blame them. But without transportation or a phone, I missed my court date, missed work, and was fired.

My only consolation was that, after selling the VW’s title to a local scrapyard, I had just enough for first and last month’s rent plus a deposit on an apartment, with a little left over for a bottle of cheap champagne.

——-

Three years later, not that much has changed, and everything has changed. I’m still waiting tables, and still saving like a miser waiting for the ground to fall out from under my feet; because the one thing I’ve learned is to be ready for the worst, and then for that to somehow get even worse still. But now I have a car, a home, actual furniture, and an all-to-often-underappreciated refrigerator. My place is where Mavy comes to shower and do laundry before her shift, and where Anthony sifts through paperwork trying to find a loophole in his eviction notice. Now I have the means to bring banana bread into work for the staff, and know that after a long shift, I get to return to someplace welcoming, dry, and safe. And now I can better recognize the symptoms of homelessness around me.

According to the association of Certified Fraud Examiners, a staggering 42% of inventory thefts in the food service industry are committed by employees. No complete study has yet determined what portion of that percentage is need-based. 

Narciso was fired from IHOP: he was caught leaving the walk-in after closing with a gallon of orange juice and a dozen eggs. The owner let him keep  the food, but not his  job–a real reversal of the “give a man a fish” proverb. Over three years later, I still catch coworkers crouched behind the line, eating food off a patron’s discarded plate, with the canine shame of a dog caught in the garbage can, and the wolf-like hunger that just needs to be satiated. When a half-eaten overcooked steak is sent back to the kitchen, now I see the delineation between those employees silently aching for the chance to have a hot meal, and those of us who fight over who gets to take the forty dollar steak home to one lucky dog. I’ve run into coworkers leaving the walk-in fridge with an armful of produce for an entire family, and I see the kitchen staff alternate between simply looking the other way, and making generous breakfasts for the staff so everyone gets at least one solid meal. Right and wrong aren’t so clear in a restaurant kitchen, where so much food is wasted while so many people are hungry.

——-

Nearly five years after the defunding of the Ending Chronic Homelessness through Employment and Housing (ECHEH) initiative, Te-Erika Patterson started the Rebuild Your Life Project and Job Fair, in which she surrendered her wealth, possessions, and career, and promised to remain homeless until at least thirty businesses agreed to give homeless women a chance to work. After a month of living on the streets, only three businesses had signed up. So, like any other homeless person, Patterson went door-to-door to businesses asking for help and participation. After two months and fourteen more enlisted businesses, Patterson was hired at a local Denny’s, where her tips went to funding her Job Fair and Project while Patterson moved to a local homeless shelter. When Denny’s management learned of Patterson’s living situation, they chose not to fire her. Rather, Patterson’s boss forwarded a proposal to the Chief Executive Officer of the restaurant chain, and Denny’s became the first global franchise to partner with the now expanded Rebuild Your Life Program, and aims to conduct interviews through the project at every one of its 1,600 restaurants on an annual basis.

During an economic juncture at which the American dream of pulling yourself up and making something from nothing has now become the Dream Deferred, both local and nationally-owned businesses are in constant competition to stay open and stay on top. This is also a time in which consumers are increasingly more mindful of Fair Trade, Eco-Friendly, and more conscientious business practices. Since competition and customer feedback are harnessed for success in an increasingly mindful consumer environment, it might be time for more establishments to follow Denny’s lead, or for more patrons to more wisely pick their endorsements.

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When Waiting for Change Isn’t Enough:  The Camouflaged Crisis in the Service Industry 

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