As I write this, 71.9 inches of snow have officially fallen on the city of Boston in the past 18 days. The MBTA, provider of city and suburban commuter public transportation, has suspended all but limited bus services with an uncertain timeframe for reopening its full schedule. And there is a bucket in my bedroom catching the drip from an ice dam forming on the roof. Snow days ain’t what they used to be.
First the good news. For many workers (myself included) working from home is the norm. Whether full time or a few days a week, many knowledge workers can do most or all of their job remotely. A wifi signal and a cell phone and they’re good to go. This means that as inconvenient as the shoveling and the cold is, or how few ideas you have left to distract the kids home from school, your business doesn’t grind to a halt and the paycheck will still come next week.
But now for the bad news. A recent Brookings Institute study found that some 38% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. And many of those families and individuals are hourly workers, who don’t get paid when snow shuts down a city, or school is closed and they have to stay home, or the train isn’t coming and they have no ride to work. For some, it isn’t just a lost day or two of pay either. Some may fear losing a job altogether if they miss too many days. In an unprecedented situation like the one we are seeing in Boston, some people aren’t just afraid of the roof caving in, but of their world coming crashing down around them.
We aren’t the first city to face this issue. Buffalo, NY saw it last November during their historic 6 foot snowfall, and employers there reacted with a mixed bag of options, some letting people use sick or leave time, offering extra shifts, or simply paying employees. But that is just not an option for every business, many of which lose the income they need to pay their staff during the shutdown too, particularly in retail, restaurant and service businesses like hairdressers. Now Boston employers face some hard choices, particularly as the snow days keep adding up. There are some bright spots, with a few reports of some companies offering bonuses or “snow pay” for workers who can make it in. But it doesn’t change a pretty scary reality for a lot of workers.
I wish I had the answers – I’d love to hear yours if you have any examples. I just hope that this snowy season doesn’t give way to a spring in which not only our public transportation and snow removal budgets are blown, but our city and state face an economic nightmare as its citizens struggle to recover from the financial storm that is brewing.