The threat of a blizzard produced long lines at grocery stores, requiring employees to stay.
The threat of a blizzard produced long lines at grocery stores, requiring employees to stay.

With this past weekend’s blizzard forcing the closure of D.C.’s public transportation system, the federal government, and hundreds of businesses, many area residents got a long weekend and a chance to relax as the snow fell outside. But for some hourly and low-wage workers, the storm left them with anxiety about lost in wages or logistical headaches over trying to get into work.

The blizzard and its ensuing cancellations hit hourly workers especially hard as they tried to prepare for the snow and had to decide if they would be able to get to work and back home at the end of their shifts. Certain bars, restaurants, and hotels were among the businesses that kept their doors open, as well as some grocery, convenience, and drug stores.

“Missing a day or two or three for a blizzard is a huge financial burden on our members,” said Jonathan Williams, communications manager for the Local 400 chapter of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. “When a blizzard comes, members are highly incentivized to work. These are low-wage workers that are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Local 400 represents food service, healthcare, retail, and other hourly workers in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, as well as several other states. Williams said their members often face a tough decision between taking the day off and losing pay, using a vacation or personal day, or trying to come into work. “It’s kind of an impossible choice for people,” he said.

Ari Schwartz, a lead organizer with D.C. Jobs With Justice, said severe weather like blizzards can lead to strained situations for workers.

“In general, we think that the opportunity to work extra hours or pick up shifts is great, if it’s something employees want to do,” Schwartz said on Monday. But it becomes a problem, he said, when employees can’t get home after a shift because of the weather.

With WMATA shutting down the Metro and bus systems, many small businesses relied on “skeleton crews” of workers who live nearby. Schwartz highlighted the difference in policy and procedure between locally and nationally based companies, saying that local businesses are usually better at establishing open communication between employers and their employees when something like this weekend’s blizzard happens.

“We heard anecdotally that on Saturday at CVS, for example, they weren’t able to close early because their policy requires corporate approval, and people were stuck beyond their scheduled shifts,” Schwartz said. “That’s the type of thing we’re hoping to improve at a policy level.”

Schwartz and other activists are advocating for the Hours & Scheduling Stability Act, a bill introduced to the D.C. Council in early December that would require chain restaurants and retailers to schedule their employees’ hours three weeks before a designated shift. The legislation is currently under review.

On Jan. 21, the day before the storm began, the Retail Industry Leaders Association said in a press release that preparation for severe and unpredictable weather situations—like the blizzard—would be “severely hampered” by predictive scheduling legislation. The RILA represents many large retailers operating in the D.C. area, including Target, Walmart, and Walgreens.

“This storm is an obvious real-world example for why scheduling legislation would be a disaster for local retailers and D.C. residents,” Jason Brewer, RILA’s vice president of communications and advocacy, said in the release. “To my knowledge, no meteorologist in America predicted this super storm 21 days ago.”

Schwartz disagreed with Brewer’s assertions, claiming that RILA mischaracterized the bill.

“When an employee is called in unexpectedly, they have to secure childcare arrangements, lose out on their second job, or miss a class,” Schwartz said. “The real question for the RILA is: Why do chain retailers operate like it’s a blizzard the rest of the year, constantly changing the schedule with late notice or scheduling employees for on-call work?”

Williams agreed. “We thought it a was a pretty opportunistic press release,” he said. “They kinda treat every day like it’s a chaotic snowstorm.”

Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes