The 'meter' is running on N.Y. transit strike

* The Equitable Life Assurance Company is renting 700 hotel rooms. * Merrill Lynch & Co. has chartered 45 buses. * Goldman Sachs, the investment banking house, has chartered a boat to take its workers across the East River to and from Brooklyn.

New York's transit strike is proving expensive to business, but companies are coping.

Exactly how much it is costing businesses in the city is hard to tell right away. However, the city's Economic Development Agency, in an initial estimate, figures the cost to the city's businesses at about $200 million a day. A spokesman, Mike Battenfeld, explains that the agency came up with this figure by figuring the cost of the 1966 transit strike and then adjusting for inflation over the past 14 years.

If the strike were to continue for six days, the agency says, the total loss in production and lost wages would be $1.33 billion, including a loss of $133 million in retail sales. If the strike went 12 days, as did the 1966 strike, the cost to business could come to $1.76 billion, including a drop of $560 million in retail sales. The losses get smaller as the strike drags on, Mr. Battenfeld explains, because people adjust.

This was certainly true during the strike's first day. Most businesses had planned for it months in advance. They had reserved hotel rooms, parking spaces , buses, charter fishing boats, and automobiles. Office workers were organized by borough so that yellow school buses could pick them up. Scores more walked to work, rode bicycles, roller-skated, or jogged to work.

In some cases, many business executives said, the strike got people into work earlier than normal. This was so at the New York Stock Exchange, where some 130 to 135 people spent the night on cots on the floor of the exchange. Still others who worked on the exchange spent the night in rented hotel rooms in Newark, N.J., where they could pick up New Jersey's mass-transit system, PATH, that goes into Manhattan.

Trading on the exchange was light, but it normally is during the Jewish Passover holiday, which coincided with the first day of the strike. The American Stock Exchange's commodity pits stopped work early, but otherwise reported that business was normal.

To keep the financial world ticking, brokers and businesses have resorted to some expensive methods. Merrill Lynch, for example, is paying about $10,000 a day for its 45 buses. The New York Clearing House, which services all the New York banks, has reserved five river ferryboats and 400 buses to provide transportation for 34,000 employees of 13 banks, including the New York Federal Reserve Bank. The Clearing House said it would not disclosed the cost of the extra service.

For the hotels in New York, the strike has filled up almost every available room. One large insurance company reports it is spending about $50,000 a day to house, feed, and park its employees. The company justifies the expense, however , by noting that it owes it to its policyholders to provide them continuous service.

Not only has the transit strike complicated affairs for the companies, but a strike by the Long Island Rail Road has also disrupted a vital transportation link into the city. To deal with this, RCA Corporation and other companies have organized car pools. In fact, the city has more or less mandated this by not allowing any cars into Manhattan that don't have a least two people in them.

Once the car poolers and bused-in riders get into the city, some are get fed by their employers. Equitable Life, for example, is serving breakfast and dinner for the 1,500 employees it is keeping in the city. William McCaffrey, vice-president, says it decided to do this to hold down the strain on restaurants. "We're trying to save as much wear and tear on our employees as possible," Mr. McCaffrey says.

Although the strike is sure to cost more than the one in 1966, city officials point out there are some key differences. The '66 strike came in the winter, which kept many people from walking or riding their bikes. Thus, attendance at offices was lower.

Also, the previous strike hit the garment business when it was right in the middle of producing its spring line. This year the spring items are already shipped. One designer in the district says it is normally slow at this time of year anyway.

It's also too early to feel the effect on department stores. In the last strike business slumped 40 percent. This year, Woolworth's already reports that it saw a drop in business. Bloomingdale's said its first day of the strike was somewhat slower than normal.

Still, for the most part the city continued to function. As a spokesman for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company said, "We're coping rather well." Of course, it has reserved 450 hotel rooms and 250 parking spaces for its "people who make other people move."

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