Working under the weather: Boston low-wage laborers beaten down by winter

Record snow paralyzes Northeast city’s transit system, meaning lost wages and misery for most-vulnerable residents

Pedestrians navigate downtown Boston sidewalks amid snow banks, Feb. 19, 2015. This winter’s heavy snows have compounded low-wage workers’ problems.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

For Boston resident Barbara Fisher, the snow has been more than just an inconvenience. Problems with public transit caused the 25-year-old mother of two to lose hours at her job at Dunkin’ Donuts. Added to the extra child care she had to pay because schools were closed, that has put a real strain on her budget.

“It’s very expensive. I can’t wait for it to go,” Fisher said of the snow. “It’s terrible, because you be trying to do your best, and there’s something that’s always going to stop [you].”

A lot of low-wage workers across Massachusetts can understand that feeling. As Boston has faced its second-snowiest winter on record — over 105 inches so far, according to the National Weather Service — many have had to miss shifts, scramble for child care or deal with leaks and power outages caused by snow piling up on aging roofs. While the weather has made things especially difficult this winter, experts say it is only aggravating long-existing problems.

“One thing that’s been very clear is the obvious hardships on low-wage workers by the failures of the T [the public transportation rail system] and public services in the storms. But I don’t think what’s very clear is the magnitude of that, because I don’t think a lot of people are aware that 40 percent of the working population makes under $15 an hour,” said Susan Moir, who directs the Labor Resource Center at University of Massachusetts at Boston. “So a substantial number of people were affected by this. Deeply affected.”

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency is still calculating the cost of this winter’s storms. But Gov. Charlie Baker said that cleanup from the blizzard at the end of January alone could have cost the commonwealth about $30 million. And a 2014 study by IHS Global Insight put the total cost of a one-day snowstorm in Massachusetts at $265 million. Of that, $194 million comes from lost wages and salaries.

Transit woes

The biggest problems this year have been with the T, which is run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Record snow and cold brought the system to its knees earlier this winter, and parts have still yet to fully recover. For many low-wage workers, that has meant losing pay, sleep or both.

“The days that I had to go into work, I was just late because it was a lot of snow. And it was traffic. The buses kept getting stuck, and it was running on a delay, a two-hour delay. And no one knew anything,” said Fisher, who said the delays made her miss a shift.

Severe delays and full shutdowns in the face of winter storms have been politically toxic, prompting MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott to announce her resignation on Feb. 11. Baker has put together a commission to recommend solutions while calling for $14 million in cuts to the MBTA to help plug the state’s large budget deficit.

Experts disagree on whether those cuts will affect T service. But there is agreement that the system desperately needs to upgrade its equipment and infrastructure.

“Over a long period of time, the state has chronically underfunded our public transportation system so that trains get older and older and systems break down when we have bad weather,” said Noah Berger, the executive director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

According to him, service interruptions on the T, along with business and school closings, hit low-wage workers especially hard because they rely on public transit to get to work, school and child care.

Jonathan Cornier works as an airport baggage handler, and he lost a full day’s pay when the airport shut down because of the snow. Under federal law, employersdo not have to pay workers who are eligible for overtime pay — nonexempt employees — if their business closes because of inclement weather. Unlike many white-collar and professional jobs, low-wage, hourly employees are almost all nonexempt. 

“I definitely had to cut back,” said Cornier, 23, whose income helps support his mother and sister. “I always have to cut back when I miss hours — food, transportation. I have to legit go to work and home. I can’t go nowhere else.”

Lee Anderson adds to the pile of snow in front of his house in Somerville, Massachusetts, after a storm dumped an additional 2 feet of it on the Boston area.
Josh Reynolds/AP

Then there’s the problem of snow piling up on roofs — something Dora Sandoval, 38, a house cleaner, knows about firsthand. She and her two children have been in the dark since Feb. 22, when firefighters cut off power to her Roxbury apartment because of a leak caused by snow. Since then, she said, she has had to cook in her neighbor’s apartment, and her 13-year-old daughter is unable to study at night.

“I have a big problem, because I wake up early in the morning and everything is dark,” Sandoval said. “I have only one lamp, and everybody sleeps in the same room because my son [is] scared about the house because it's too dark. This is why I am worried, especially for the electricity.”

According to Moir, the cost of repairing leaky roofs and frozen pipes could have a major long-term impact on Massachusetts renters. “If landlords are paying huge [insurance] deductibles for the damage to their property, they’re going to pass those costs on to the tenants,” she said. “The tenants will continue to pay the damages on this ... Tenants will pay for a lot of the damages that were done to the housing stock in Boston as a result of this storm.”

With short days, frigid temperatures and mountains of snow that have made just moving around the city nearly impossible at times, it’s fair to say that most of Boston is a little on edge. And many believe low-wage workers have been hit the hardest.

Still, while she’s clearly frustrated that her power has been cut off for days because of the snow, Sandoval remains unflappable.

“This year is very heavy snow,” she said, “but I try to continue my life.”

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