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Winter weather adds stress for Boston’s struggling workers

In Boston, brutal winter weather shuttered schools, offices and businesses for days at a time. While some may have welcomed the snow days, some hourly workers faced the choice between giving up a day of wages or making the grueling, even dangerous, commute. Special correspondent Rick Karr reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    It's been a tough winter in so many ways, especially in Boston and other parts of the Northeast. Yes, spring is finally within sight. Along the New England coastline, huge, melting blocks of ice are beginning to wash up along Cape Cod.

    But some forecasts suggest Boston could get yet one more snowfall this weekend. It comes as the season's wicked weather has forced businesses to make tough decisions, affecting workers already stretched thin.

    Special correspondent Rick Karr reports.

  • RICK KARR:

    Kerry Maiato commute stresses him out when the weather is fine. After a shift of his catering job on the Harvard campus, he drives to Tewksbury, picks up his children from his parents' house, and then drives to his own place in Lawrence. It usually takes an hour. But during one of this winter's worst storms, it turned into three-and-a-half-hours of white-knuckle terror.

  • KERRY MAIATO:

    I was right in the heart of the storm. It was just awful and scary. And it was watching cars spin out. I was just waiting for one to spin out into me.

  • RICK KARR:

    He dreads another commute under those conditions, or worse. Harvard University students need to be fed, even during the worst storms, so the workers who feed them don't get snow days.

  • KERRY MAIATO:

    We have to be here. We're — they claim that we're critical personnel. So, I mean, that's a fine line between being critical and risking your life to come into work.

  • RICK KARR:

    Maiato missed three days of work because of the weather. He used vacation time for two of them, but that means he won't have them when he goes on a six-week mandatory furlough in May. Missing the third day cost him $300 in income.

    THOMAS KOCHAN, MIT Sloan School of Management: Every dollar that's lost by a low-wage worker is one that, you know, makes it harder and harder to meet the month's rent or to put food on table or to make the car payments. And so all of that adds stress.

  • RICK KARR:

    Thomas Kochan teaches at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He says some hourly workers took a hit from the slump in business, so management didn't feel as much pain.

  • THOMAS KOCHAN:

    Some employers simply said, don't come in because we're closed. We can't — we can't serve our customers. Stay home, and you're on your own.

  • RICK KARR:

    Kochan is more impressed when small business owners do the opposite.

  • THOMAS KOCHAN:

    When they have tried to accommodate the employees who come in, and they find other things to do, to do some repairs, to do some cleaning. And that creates a stronger bond between the employer and the employee, because it shows that we really care for each other. We have made the extra effort to get here. You have made the extra effort to help us earn some money.

  • RICK KARR:

    Diner owner Sol Sidell did that and more for his employees. He kept the South Street Diner open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, storm after storm, except when Governor Charlie Baker ordered all businesses to close. Sidell picked employees up and drove them home. But a few didn't want to work.

  • SOL SIDELL:

    I'm not coming to work. You know, the snow starts at 1:00, and I have to shovel, and I'm tired, and I'm not coming to work tonight, and with no other excuse.

  • RICK KARR:

    Around 10 percent of the diner staff quit, and the 90 percent who stayed?

  • SOL SIDELL:

    I think that's Boston stubborn. It used to be Boston strong, but this — after this winter, it's Boston stubborn.

    We really — you know, people want to see us break the record at this point.

  • RICK KARR:

    For Kerry Maiato, family is more important than anything. His wife is also an hourly employee at Harvard. She faced the same struggles and a cut in pay. This is the first winter that Kerry has considered moving south, but this is where he's from. Winter is almost over, and the weather is getting warmer.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Rick Karr, reporting from Lawrence, Massachusetts.

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