Carlo Allegri / Reuters

No snow days for low-wage workers

Maids, caregivers, janitors and drugstore clerks make their way to work as public transit shuts down

JAMAICA, N.Y. — To prepare for “snowmageddon,” Ana Navarrete stocked up on diapers Monday afternoon. She and her ex-boyfriend, Pedro Blanco, perused the baby aisle of a CVS drug store, having left their 2-month-old son with a sitter.

As the snow piled up on Hillside Avenue, Navarrete thought about her imminent commute. She works nights, 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., as a hotel maid on Long Island, about 25 miles east. She drives 60 minutes each way — much longer in the snow — for just $8.50 per hour, 25 cents below the state minimum wage.

“I have to go to work,” Navarrete said, reassured that Blanco, a landscaper, could stay with the baby overnight. “My boss is making me work tonight and tomorrow night. If I didn’t go in, I would lose my job.”

In the region affected by the storm, over 577,000 workers labor at or below the minimum wage (PDF). They are overrepresented in the service sector and thus unlikely to get a paid snow day — maids, nannies, home health aides, taxi drivers, fast-food cooks, grocery store stockers and janitors, to name a few. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these employees rarely enjoy flexibility on the job. Nationally, only 20 percent of low-wage workers (in the bottom tenth of private-sector earners) enjoy paid sick leave. And only 39 percent have paid vacation, let alone personal days.

A massive disruption like a blizzard hits low-wage employees hardest, said Amy Traub, senior policy analyst at liberal think tank Demos. “There is no working from home if you’re a sales associate or if you’re a cashier. If they can’t get to work because of weather, you miss a paycheck. If the store closes early or works with a skeleton staff, you miss a paycheck.”

'I have to go to work. My boss is making me work tonight and tomorrow night. If I didn’t go in, I would lose my job.'

Ana Navarrete

Hotel maid on the night shift

Some states and municipalities battling the storm — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York City and Jersey City, N.J. — require employers to provide paid time off. But laws typically do not apply to very small businesses; nor do they cover missed work due to lack of child care or a shutdown in public transit. “There’s no recourse if [the boss] says, ‘Come here or you’re fired,’ unless you have a union contract,” Traub said.

While Navarrete planned to drive through the storm, thousands of other low-wage workers kept an eye on mass transit alerts. By late Monday night, New York officials had suspended bus, train and subway services and closed the roads to traffic, but the storm veered northeast before dawn, dumping many feet of snow on Long Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine. Public transportation in New York and New Jersey slowly returned line by line Tuesday morning.

Many employees commute a long way, but the question is more “how arduous the journey is — how well the transit system does or does not connect,” said Elena Conte, senior organizer for planning and policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. In New York City, “lower-income workers, with the gentrification coming from Manhattan’s core, tend to be at greater distances from the core. Whether it’s manufacturing or home health care aides that are traveling to work with clients, it’s not easy to get where the clients are.”

The trek to Long Island Monday evening would be feasible, but Navarrete worried about getting back. If the blizzard continued through the night, she’d ask to stay at the hotel between shifts — and call on a babysitter to cover the day shift at home. 

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