Is the 'Waffle House Index' safe for employees? Why some say unofficial metric used to judge storm severity keeps employees doing 'so much for so little.'

The "Waffle House Index" refers to an unofficial, but staggeringly accurate, metric used to judge the severity of a storm — based on if Waffle House is open, closed or operating with a limited menu. (Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

As Hurricane Ian churned off the Gulf Coast of Florida last month, having just inflicted catastrophic damage on Cuba, Waffle Houses across the state began announcing closures to ride out the storm. Initially, Waffle House announced that more than 20 stores would close, including stores in areas expected to be hit the hardest and those in mandatory evacuation zones. As Waffle Houses shuttered for service, the term "Waffle House Index" exploded across news reports and social media.

What is the Waffle House Index?

The term, coined by Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), refers to an unofficial, but staggeringly accurate, metric used to judge the severity of a storm — based on if Waffle House is open, closed or operating with a limited menu.

Waffle House makes every effort to keep restaurants open during a storm, often keeping backup generators and alternative cooking methods (like outdoor propane grills) available to continue operations, even in the most extreme weather conditions. If a location is forced to close before or during a storm, Waffle House pushes hard to get it back open as quickly as possible.

There are nearly 2,000 Waffle Houses in the U.S., according to Waffle House's location finder, with the vast majority of those stores located in the southeast part of the country. For many people in the South, the Waffle House Index conjures up the nostalgic comfort of 24-hour diner meals and the knowing reassurance that their local restaurant is always open. People less familiar with the chain seem to be mostly amused by the novelty of using a fast food diner as a predictor of the weather. But these types of informal indicators signal things are getting serious to people in areas that regularly see tropical storms and are gauging the severity of the situation.

As Ian loomed, Kati Kokal, education reporter for the Palm Beach Post tweeted what she called "the six horsemen of an impending hurricane, in order of severity."

On Kokal's list? "Publix begins selling hurricane cakes (a practice the grocery chain has since done away with), Disney closes, Jim Cantore arrives and ... Waffle House closes."

The risks Waffle House employees take

While Waffle House's storm response takes into account important factors, including power outages, a lack of running water and evacuation mandates, many argue it fails to consider the danger to employees that keep those locations operating while the storm rages outside. It's unclear how much the potential human cost is considered when staying open during such a powerful storm as Hurricane Ian, but it's clear employees are expected to show up to work as usual.

Yahoo Life contacted Waffle House for comment on their inclement weather procedures and received the following statement: While we are happy to speak generally about our crisis response efforts, specific details as to our procedures are not something we typically share with the public. As for the Index, it does not belong to us and it is not something we use to gauge our response to natural disasters.

So what's it like to staff a Waffle House during a storm?

"The store remained open and some people would run into the store seeking shelter, and you're in there just still serving waffles and coffee," says Krista Stone, a former Waffle House server and grill cook who worked at several locations in Athens, Ga. from 2010 to 2011. "Even when we lost air conditioning and it was like 110 degrees outside, we were still open. When a tornado cut out all the power, we were still open."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), during a hurricane an employer has the responsibility to preserve "the safety and health of its workers" and provide "a safe and healthful workplace." OSHA requires employers "protect workers from the anticipated hazards associated with the response and recovery operations that workers are likely to conduct."

But what's a Waffle House employee to do if they feel unsafe going in for their shift? Stone says she never considered calling out due to a storm or unsafe conditions. "It wasn't really a thought ... because you don't make very much money working at Waffle House," she says. "And at the time, I was a single mom of two, and I had to go to work. There was no question."

During Hurricane Ian, several Waffle House employees took to social media to chronicle what was happening in real-time. TikTok user @bubblychelsey posted a video from her store in Davenport, Fla., where she showed an empty restaurant and a battery-operated lantern employees would use if the electricity went out, along with small candles for the tables, should any guests show up.

In the Brandon, Fla. area, TikTok user @loudmoufmommy kept followers posted throughout the course of the storm, traveling to several Waffle House locations where she was needed, and eventually being sent home in the middle of the evening when all Waffle Houses in the area had completely lost power.

Putting a dollar value on service

When compounded with low wages and how hard the employees have to work for them, it becomes even harder to rationalize sending people to work in such hazardous conditions. ZipRecruiter estimates the average server at a Waffle House in Florida makes about $26,602 per year — which is less than half the $55,681 median income for a single-earner in Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and below the average yearly cost of living in Florida, which is estimated at $43,615 by SoFi.

Even more startling is how close that salary is to the official federal poverty level. For a family of four in 2022, lists the federal poverty line at $27,750, which is about $1,148 more than an average Waffle House server in Florida makes in a year. It's likely many tipped employees are completely reliant on those tips to make ends meet, and that tips alone probably aren't cutting it. Cooks and other employees can rely on a more consistent hourly wage if they aren't making tips, but it's likely their take-home pay isn't much better.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, tipped employees must be paid a minimum wage of $2.13 per hour by their employer, which assumes the employee will make at least $5.12 in tips per hour to reach the hourly minimum wage rate of $7.25. Some states have a higher minimum wage, including Florida, which recently raised minimum wage from $10 to $11 per hour and the tipped employee rate from $6.98 to $7.98 per hour. Other states, like Georgia, do not provide wages above the federal minimum.

For a server making $2.13, or even $7.98 an hour, who doesn't see a single guest during their shift aside from the occasional person taking shelter from the storm, it can be hard to justify coming in to work during a category four hurricane. On top of the risks of traveling in seriously inclement weather, employees need to juggle last-minute childcare, deal with their own homes should they face flooding, power outages or damage and be sure they can find a safe way home after the storm has passed.

If an employee is eligible for overtime during a storm, they will absolutely be compensated for it, but hazard pay or bonuses aren't given when employees are told to report to work in the middle of a storm, even if most other businesses have shut down.

Southern hospitality is free, but it doesn’t pay the bills

In a place where "Southern Hospitality" is a common cultural stereotype, taking good service for granted can make it even harder to put a dollar value on a day's work. It's that warm and welcoming hospitality style, served smothered and covered, that Waffle House is known for. But it's physically and emotionally demanding work — work that is often under-compensated.

Many depend on the low prices Waffle House offers for a hot meal. Menu items and prices may vary by location, but the most expensive item on the menu is the T-Bone Steak Dinner with a Garden Salad, Hashbrowns and Texas Toast, which costs about $11. The vast majority of the menu items cost less than $8.

A warm bowl of sausage, egg and cheese grits off the value menu is only $3 — undoubtedly a comforting, low-priced meal to someone who may need it during tight financial times — but at a price so exceptionally low it's hard to imagine it covers the food cost, overhead and staff's hourly wage. With a 20% tip, the server would only be making .60 cents before taxes on the meal.

From that perspective, it becomes painfully clear the staff's labor is next-to-free when working within a tipping-wages structure. "The checks you get don't really pay for anything, because you're talking two dollars and [change] an hour. So you really relied on your tips," says Stone, "and not everybody that came in tipped — or they'd leave you a nice little napkin, like Here's a tip, get a better job or they'd leave a penny. I've literally watched fights between waitresses over a dollar on a table."

"I remember this one correctional officer — he'd come in every single day and you knew if he liked you by what he would tip you," she continues. "He'd only come in for one cup of coffee and we knew what time he'd come in and it needed to be a freshly-brewed pot of coffee and he'd want it out for him."

Stone still remembers the officer's "no cream, two sugars" coffee order and the day he finally tipped her more than a quarter, a sign "he really liked you."

"I remember it took me about a month for him to actually give me a dollar," she says, "and then you felt so good about yourself."

Looking back, Stone says it was a small reward for a lot of effort. "You dumped out a perfectly good pot of coffee, brewed a new one just for one person, made sure he had one specific seat on the high bar and that it was nice and clean for him," she says. "You addressed him and gave him everything he needed and you did all of that for one dollar. So you're busting your butt literally for a dollar, and that was it. You do so much for so little."

Anything but calm

When the skies begin to clear, that's when Waffle House employees can expect an uptick in diners and tips. "If the power was out, we would get people coming in because they couldn't cook or anything like that," says Stone. "Even if our power was out, our grill would still be on, so we'd still be cooking ... because otherwise [people] didn’t have anywhere to go. You're pretty much the only option, especially for the lower income people."

In an effort to keep people fed, Waffle House has developed alternative menus in response to a variety of situations. Often these consolidated menus help relieve some of the burden placed on staff during these busy times.

If you find yourself at a Waffle House the morning after a hurricane (or any other time, really), there are a few things you can do to show employees your gratitude for their hard work.

If you're in the position to do so, take cash to pay for your meal: There's a chance credit card machines may not be working properly after a storm, and struggling to put a payment through will slow your server down on an already busy day.

Additionally, tip in cash, ensuring your server can walk out of work with money in their pocket to take care of themselves instead of waiting until two weeks from now when they get another paycheck. (It also reduces the amount taken out for credit transaction processing fees.)

Finally, consider the cost of your meal and the true value of the labor that went into it. A chocolate chip waffle and a cup of coffee only cost $5.10, but the service is probably what made it a fulfilling meal. If you're able to, tip above the standard 20%. Consider even tipping 100%, or more if you're comfortable doing so. And, of course, diners should always exercise patience and understanding while servers work hard to get everyone fed. A little hospitality goes a long way.

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