Storm dumps snow on Mid-Atlantic, closing airports and government

With major airports and the federal government shut down, effects from this week's snow storm will linger beyond the time needed to dig out. The unemployed may be impacted by Congress' snow days, unless lawmakers are able to rush through a bill extending their benefits.

By , Staff writer

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    Workers at Laguardia Airport in New York City try to clear the tarmac as snow continues to accumulate during a blizzard that lashed the US East Coast for the second time in less than a week. The storm has wreaked havoc from Washington to New York by forcing government agencies, the United Nations, and schools to close.
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The Eastern third of the nation is having another “B-day,” as in blizzard, which is resulting in another “D-day,” as in disruption.

The US House of Representatives was supposed to have hearings on the Haiti recovery, Toyota accelerator pedal problems, the Federal Reserve’s exit strategy, and the dilemma facing Google over cyberhacking. All postponed because of the snow.

For the unemployed, it could be worse than just a missed hearing: Congress' snow days may cost the jobless a week or two of additional unemployment checks and COBRA coverage unless lawmakers can rush through a jobs bill.

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Vice President Joseph Biden planned to make a major speech on the Obama administration’s nuclear security agenda. The speech will now have to wait another week.

In Washington, Reagan National and Dulles airports were shut down Wednesday. And at airports all around the New York metro area, there are hundreds of cancelled flights, stranding thousands of travelers.

Yes, if nothing else, this winter will be remembered for its snow disruptions. Normally, they are short-lived, as travelers get rebooked on a flight the following day, hearings are rescheduled, and lives return to normal.

But this winter may be a little bit different, because of the severity and location of the storms. The Washington, D.C., area, now buried by two consecutive blizzards, is not used to coping with Buffalo, N.Y., amounts of snow. Retailers, already struggling to entice consumers to spend, will find it hard to make up the lost sales. Many travelers will find it harder to get rebooked because the airlines have reduced capacity so much.

“The degree these snow days are so costly and a waste of money depends on whether the work will be made up,” says Karen Dynan, vice president for economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “As far as the people who make policy, it is highly likely the work will be made up. They will just work extra hours.”

Federal government shuts down, again

According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, closing down the federal government, which shut again on Wednesday, costs about $100 million a day in lost productivity and related costs. So far, the government has been closed 3-1/2 days.

Ms. Dynan says there are several pieces of legislation that are going to be delayed because of Congress’s snow days.

For example, the US Senate is considering a jobs bill that extends additional unemployment and COBRA health benefits before they expire at the end of February.

The bill has already passed the House. Since Congress is on recess next week, this would give the lawmakers just one week to pass the proposed extensions.

“Because there are some lags built into the system, some workers may begin to get notices they have received their last benefits,” says Andrew Stettner of the National Employment Law Project in New York. “This could be one of the worst delays we have faced so far,” he says, estimating it might mean people’s benefit checks are delayed by a week or two once the legislation is passed.

Stranded travelers

For many travelers, the storm means missing meetings or trips home. For example, on Tuesday evening in New York, 60 tourism officials from around California met the media to try to entice them to write about the Golden state. The next day, many discovered that their flights back to snow-less places like Los Angeles had been canceled.

One of those officials is Barbara Hillman, president of Visit Berkeley, the convention and visitors bureau. Originally, she was shocked when her airline told her that she couldn’t fly out until Sunday. Ultimately, she got the last two seats available on Friday.

“Thank goodness, I have my laptop,” says Ms. Hillman, who needs to prepare for a meeting of the board of directors. “But we said, ‘At least we’re not stranded in some little town where there is nothing to do.’ ”

Even for people who work from home, the snow has been disruptive. In Haymarket, Va., Christine Cannon, managing director of Media Relations for IPR, Inc., normally works from home while three of her four children attend school. But they haven’t been in school since last Thursday.

“The kids are pretty good at getting outside to build igloos and tunnels,” she says. “But when they come back inside, there are a lot of floors to mop and laundry runs. I’m not getting a lot of work done, but we are baking a lot of cookies to keep the house warm.”

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