An MBTA bus drives through a snow-crusted Harvard Square.

Credit: Amanda Kersey / WGBH News

Record Snow + MBTA Woes = Business Headaches

February 18, 2015

From the crippled MBTA system to congested and snow-clogged roads, it’s tough to get anywhere on time in Greater Boston these days. So how are businesses handling the ongoing situation with employees arriving late, or not at all?

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts just put out a survey to its 4,500 member companies asking how many have been disrupted by the weather. Within minutes they got 22 replies — all yes — and most said the disruptions are being caused by employees who can’t get to work.

"'Production runs being canceled as employees cannot make it into work,'" said AIM vice president Christopher Geehern, reading some of the responses. "Let’s see — 'limited workforce … products not arriving from overseas … trucking company not picking up or shipping … we’re a service business and without the MBTA employees cannot get to work … We end up shoveling and plowing rather than doing productive work and employees don’t come into work.'"

Manufacturers are generally trying to be understanding and flexible with employees, Geehern says — but their deadlines for delivery aren’t flexible — and they’re getting to a crucial point where things need to get better.

"Manufacturers have very little wiggle room," he said.

So even as the weariness and frustration with the snow grows, it’s becoming more important for some employees to get to work. Many companies are wobbling on the brink because they’ve lost so much business to the weather. That just adds more uncertainty for employees who don't get paid if they don't show up — generally for hourly or blue-collar jobs like waiters, taxicab drivers, and warehouse workers.

If you’re a union member or a government employee, you might have some protection against firing if you can’t show up on time, says Tom Kochan, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

"But if you’re just a regular employee, it’s up to the employer," Kochan said. "There’s no law that says you can’t discharge someone for inability to get to work."

But if employers do that, it might backfire on them, Kochan says, by causing resentment among employees.

"I think these are times testing the employment relationship and it can get better — and I think in the majority of cases it strengthens those bonds, but in some cases it may fray them if one party or the other thinks the other one is taking advantage of the situation,” he said.

For salaried workers, the weather can actually be an opportunity to show their commitment. Kochan says those who, say, could work from home but instead wait on a T platform for hours to get to the office, may make a lasting impression on their employer.

"I think everyone wants to do what they can to get to work – both to protect their jobs and their reputations," he said.

One of the Greater Boston area’s biggest employers, Boston University, tries to make the situation moot by designating vital employees ahead of time and making clear who needs to trudge in. With a plan like that in place, all an employer has left to do is remain positive, says Michael Donovan, vice president for real estate and facility services.

"It’s an epic winter," Donovan said. "And we just need to be hearty new englanders and try to get through it. I think there is light at the end of this winter. Eventually this will go away, it will pass. It will all melt."

And if you want employees to keep trying to get to work, Donovan says, that’s what they need to hear.

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