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The New Economy

When snow stalls states, MTA transit, who's hit the worst?

The weekend snowstorm, which forced six states into emergency mode and partially paralyzed New York's MTA system, hit hourly workers especially hard.

By / December 27, 2010

Motorists pull over to the side of the Long Island Expressway to try and clear their windshield during a blizzard in Long Island, N.Y., Dec. 26. The closure of roads and transit systems, like New York's MTA, hit hourly workers the hardest, according to a study earlier this year.

Seth Wenig/AP

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Snowstorms suppress retail sales, reduce producitivty, and cut into tax revenues. But the biggest losers of the weekend snowstorm that closed down much of the East Coast Monday?

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Hourly workers.

Warned off slippery roadways, stranded on commuter trains and subways, such as New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) subway, the people who serve the food, sell the goods, and clean the offices lost precious wages Monday.

Even with overtime later on, many of them won't make up what they lost, according to a study of snow costs for 16 states released in March by the American Highway Users Alliance.

"Snow-related shutdowns harm hourly workers the worst, accounting for almost two thirds of direct economic losses," concluded the study (.pdf), which was carried out by IHS Global Insight, an economic research firm based in Lexington, Mass. Adding in lost sales for businesses, taxes for government, and other costs, the economic impact of even a one-day shutdown along the East Coast can range from $183.5 million in Maryland to $700 million in New York.

This weekend's storm was especially hard on the band of states from North Carolina on up to Maine. Besides Maryland, the Associated Press reported, five other states declared states of emergency Monday – North Carolina (not included in the study), Virginia ($260 million), New Jersey ($289 million), Massachusetts ($265 million), and Maine (not included in the study).

That suggests that the costs from this snowstorm could top $1 billion. It could rise even more if shutdowns persist into Tuesday.

In New York City, tales trickled in of MTA commuters stranded for hours. The MTA suspended service on the Long Island Rail Road, the Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven lines of its Metro-North rail service, some of its bus service, and even some of its subway lines.

"The MTA is urging its customers to stay home if at all possible," the transit authority said in its winter weather advisory.

The effects of such suspensions are especially hard on hourly workers, because they typically have to be at the workplace to earn income.

By contrast, salaried workers typically don't lose days for snow days. And their productivity loss is less, because an increasing number of white-collar employees can work from home.

For example, when heavy snow hit Washington, D.C., this past February and kept federal employees home for nearly a week, the initial estimate was that the government was losing $100 million a day in lost productivity. The following month, however, the Office of Personnel Management revised the figure down to $71 million a day, because some 30 percent of federal workers in the Washington area were able to work remotely from home.

There's no such remote-work benefit for hourly workers. Manufacturing and construction employees paid by the hour can make up much of their lost income, the study from the American Highway Users Alliance suggested. That's unlikely for others who staff the stores and restaurants – and especially those who man government offices, the study found.

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