Sherry Garris doesn’t know how she’s going to pay her bills.
For four years, she’s cleaned homes in the Outer Banks – from small beachfront properties to huge 10-bedroom mansions for anywhere from $40 to $250 per house. When a construction company hit underground power lines and plunged Hatteras and Ocracoke islands into darkness, Garris’ world turned dark, too.
Garris lives in Buxton, on Hatteras Island, so she and her two kids were without power, too. But more importantly, Garris was out of work.
When a mandatory evacuation order was issued for visitors to both islands, the houses Garris makes her living cleaning during the busy vacation season stayed clean. She’s not needed.
But like everyone, Garris’ bills are still coming in. Her rent is due this week. Her electric bill is next. She needs to keep her phone turned on. She has to feed her kids. She’ll be at a food bank for help this week. She’s trying to start her own vegetable garden.
“How will I pay rent?” Garris said in an interview with The News & Observer on Wednesday. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
On a good week of work, Garris said she and others like her might make $400 cleaning several houses, some of which take a few hours and others that take all day. Some people leave her tips, others don’t. She doesn’t hold it against them.
“They couldn’t afford it, so what? I hope they had a good time and come back next year,” she said.
But that leaves Garris and others in her industry scraping by, especially since much of that money has to be set aside for the slower months when she can rarely get work – when vacationers head to the mountains or out of state or just stay home instead of renting beach houses. She said she works for a real estate company.
Friday will be Garris’ last paycheck for the foreseeable future – until the lights come back on and visitors are allowed to return to the islands.
While some vacationers might recoup their lost dollars, Garris said “this is a whole new ballgame” for seasonal workers.
“No one needs us now,” Garris said. “And we’re not protected. Other people might get their money back – we won’t.”
Garris has joined a lawsuit for business owners and others by the Wallace and Graham law firm in Salisbury, seeking compensation for lost earnings and other damages from PCL Civil Constructors Inc., the company that damaged two main power lines providing electricity to Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Wallace and Graham is representing residents, a local pizza and home rental business, charter boat business and others.
A second lawsuit was filed in federal and Hyde County courts by Zaytoun law firm in Raleigh and Steve E. Lacy’s law firm in New Bern and Bayboro on behalf of businesses and employees this week.
Zaytoun and Lacy are representing more charter boat businesses, rental properties and hourly employees.
“I understand it was an accident,” Garris said. “But it could have been avoided easily.
“I’m just really concerned. I don’t like to say ‘the little guys’ but the average, everyday people here, they could be evicted.”
Garris said the work she does is hard, but she’s proud of it.
“My bathrooms are so clean you could eat in there,” she said, laughing. She just wants to get back to work.
“We’re stuck. I can pay rent for August, but after that? I just don’t know.”