Stay-at-home mom Sarci Eldridge has a big heart. So when Kentucky entered its second round of restaurant restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, her first thought was for her favorite server, Jessica Carey.
“Me and my mom were talking, and we were just like, you know, we should just get Jessica something to get her through the holidays,” Eldridge said. “Some gift cards and stuff. She has a little boy.”
Carey has been a server and a bartender at Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s in Lexington, Kentucky, for about seven years. She loves the Eldridge family, too. “I was going through a lot of stuff when I met them, and she and [her husband] Nate and her mom were just so sweet to me, and always seemed to know when I needed a hug.”
Carey was surprised when, out of the blue, she received a message from Eldridge asking what her son, Dain, wanted for Christmas. But after months of reduced hours and meager unemployment benefits, Carey needed the help.
“So I sent her a super small list, it was just like four things I think.”
Eldridge posted about the exchange on her personal Facebook page, she said, and it blew up. “I had some people go, like, ‘Oh, that’s a really good idea, I should do something for my favorite server.’”
A few days later, Eldridge started a Facebook group based on the idea, which she called “Adopt a Server Kentucky.” Within a few days, it had hundreds of members; within a month, four thousand. Some were generous Kentuckians moved to help struggling restaurant workers. Others were restaurant workers themselves, swallowing their pride to ask for help buying necessities, paying the electric bill, and making Christmas special for their kids.
“We need to come together and try to help people through the holidays, because through no fault of their own, these people have lost their job twice in a year, or massive pay reduction, and that’s just not easy,” Eldridge said of the group.
Many Workers, Low Wages
According to the Brookings Institution, waiting tables is the eighth most common job in the United States, with more than 12 million Americans in the hospitality sector. (This figure includes hotel workers and back-of-house workers, like dishwashers, in restaurants.) Restaurant work ranks among the top 10 industries with the most workers in the Ohio Valley states of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.
The industry has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with establishments forced to close for long periods and struggling to survive on reduced capacity even when they’re permitted to open their doors. It’s left servers like Carey with their heads spinning as they balance newly unreliable incomes with kids’ changing school schedules and concern for their health and their families’.
On top of that, the unemployment insurance system is uniquely ill-suited to meet the needs of people in the restaurant industry, according to the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program fellow Annelies Goger.
“In every state, you have to have income at a certain level every quarter in order to qualify [for unemployment], and many tipped workers, because that minimum wage is so low, wouldn’t be able to document that they have enough income to show that they’re eligible,” Goger said.
In addition to making too little money to qualify for unemployment in the usual system, the tipped minimum wage also hurts millions of servers. The national minimum wage is $7.25/hour, but the minimum wage for tipped workers is just $2.13 an hour. Since unemployment benefits are calculated as a percentage of wages, tipped workers who do qualify for unemployment insurance are likely to receive just a fraction of what other workers might bring in.
“They said I would get $199 every two weeks,” said Chuy’s server Carey. “I could make that much in one day in a good day shift. So that’s like one day, stretched over two weeks.”
The expiration of some federal support for displaced workers hit the Ohio Valley especially hard. A report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows personal income dropped last quarter by about 24% in Kentucky, and by about 30% in West Virginia — the sharpest declines in the country.
Kindness Amid “Dystopia”
Louisville server Sara Bell spent weeks unemployed, then suffered a knee injury that’s kept her off her feet even as Kentucky has reopened some dine-in capacity at its restaurants. With no paid time off, Bell turned to the brand-new Adopt a Server page for help.
“I felt a little weird asking for help, because I don’t have kids,” she said. But she does have cats: Jibby, Chewie and Duffy. “My main thing is that I want to keep them fed.”
Bell was quickly “adopted,” the language used on the page when a non-server commits to fill at least some of a server’s needs. “This sweet angel, she sent me a 22-pound bag of cat food and a big thing of their treats. And then she sent me a $100 Visa gift card and a $25 Starbucks gift card, and she kind of told me, everyone deserves a little Christmas.”
Also in Louisville, exotic dancer Tabitha Rowan worried how she would be received if she posted to Adopt a Server. But, she reasoned, closed mouths don’t get fed. “Here I am, you know, am I going to feed my son this last pack of hot dogs, this last box of cereal, and I’m just not going to eat so he can?”
So she posted, “I don’t want to come on here and not be 100% honest so here is my truth. I am not a server, I am a dancer.” She went on, “I was genuinely worried to make this post because of the “stereotype” that surrounds us. However, I promise that that stereotype does NOT apply to us all. I am just a mother that works VERY hard to take care of her son.”
She added a link to an Amazon wish list with Christmas presents for her three-year-old son, Legend.
In Lexington, Eldridge saw Rowan’s post, and she approved it. “She was just precious to me, for no other reason than she was just completely honest about her plight.”
Rowan was adopted the next day. “I opened up the door one day, and there were like six boxes sitting there.”
She went on, “I like the name Adopt a Server, but that group needs to be Beyond Blessings, is what it needs to be. That group is amazing.”
It’s hard to tell how many restaurant workers Adopt a Server has helped, but the page is brimming with multiple new posts each day. Scrolling through them is a rollercoaster of emotions: heartfelt photos of happy babies in brand-new clothes, interspersed with desperate pleas for help keeping the heat on.
Bell appreciates what the group has given her, but she sees a dark side to it, too. “This pandemic has really radicalized me,” she said. “As great as it is that people are so generous wanting to help others, it’s also incredibly dystopian the way our government failed the working class.”
An Unexpected Gift
Shortly after Jessica Carey sent Sarci Eldridge her son’s wish list, 11-year-old Dain came rushing to his mom’s side with a last-minute item for his Christmas list.
“There was a little bottle of cologne that he just loves, and he loves it because it is one that his dad gave him. And his dad died three years ago. He’s been stretching that cologne impossibly, and it finally ran out not too long ago,” she said. “He’s not very talkative about his dad. But that was one thing that meant a lot to him.”
The last few years have been difficult for Carey, she said, dealing with the loss of her high-school sweetheart and raising her son alone. It turns out, Adopt a Server had one more gift for Carey herself that wasn’t on any list.
“Me being me, I never thought that I was anything special. And I know that sounds bad to say about yourself, but … the fact that somebody thought that that was enough to want to help other people, like, I never realized that that is what I meant to them. And it feels really good.”
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