Snow day? Try polar vortex day

As a bad weather geek and a one-time denizen of midwestern America, I’ve been paying close attention to the polar vortex that today is turning the nation’s heartland into a temporary imitation of Antarctica. During winter months, folks in the Midwest become accustomed to the occasional “snow day,” whereby heavy snowfalls compel the closure of schools, businesses, and some public services. But closing down for a polar vortex is quite another thing.

Reporting for the New York Times, Kate Taylor explains some of the major ramifications of this weather. Here are her takeaway points:

  • “The Midwest will be colder on Wednesday than parts of Antarctica and Alaska”
  • “More than 50 million people will be affected”
  • “You could get frostbite in five minutes”
  • “The last time Chicago faced temperatures this low was more than 30 years ago”
  • “Thousands of flights are being canceled”
  • “Hundreds of schools are being closed”
  • “Hundreds of thousands of college students will be hunkering down”

Of course, the world of work is profoundly affected by this onslaught of sub-zero weather. With schools closing, parents’ work schedules will be thrown into disarray — assuming that their respective workplaces aren’t closing as well. Many public employees are being instructed to stay home. Even mail delivery has been suspended in areas expecting the coldest temperatures. I’m sure a lot of private businesses are shutting down today as well. And for those who have work-related air travel planned, well, this could be a frustrating day to be flying.

If you are in America’s central states right now, I hope you’re reading this from a warm place. It’s a good day to attend to indoor tasks and chores, perhaps to work from home if you have a job with that kind of flexibility, or simply to get caught up on a favorite television show or movie (or two).

Harvey brings out the best and worst in business practices

Hurricane Harvey is proving once again that large-scale disasters bring out the best and the worst in people, and that includes those who run local businesses.

A shining exemplar of the best side is Houston furniture store owner Jim McIngvale, known locally as “Mattress Mack.” As the seemingly endless sheets of rain started to flood Houston, Mattress Mack put out the word that those who needed shelter could come to one of his stores and have a warm, dry place to sleep. As Heidi Glenn and Daniella Cheslow reported for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition”:

Houstonian Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack,” has turned his two furniture stores into temporary shelters for Tropical Storm Harvey evacuees.

As the city started to flood, he posted a video online with a simple message: Come on over. He gave out his personal phone number. And hundreds of people streamed in.

“We sell home theater furniture that you watch TV in, they’re sleeping on that. They’re sleeping on recliners, sleeping on sofas and love seats. We have sleeper sofas, they pulled them out and slept on that,” McIngvale tells NPR’s Morning Edition. “They’re sleeping on hundreds of mattresses throughout the store. They’re sleeping on the couches — wherever they can find a place that’s comfortable, and God bless ’em.”

One station sold gas for a whopping $20 a gallon. A hotel reportedly charged guests more than twice the normal rate. One business sold bottles of  water for a staggering $99 per case — more than 10 times some of the prices seen online.

As people in southeastern Texas face the devastating floodwater left by Hurricane Harvey, they are also grappling with predatory businesses that are selling basic necessities at astronomical prices. As of Wednesday morning, the state attorney general’s office had received 684 consumer complaints, a majority of which involved price-gouging of bottled water, fuel, groceries and other necessities.

I’m betting that we’ll be hearing more stories of kindness, sharing, and courage during the days, weeks, and months to come. Hopefully those accounts will inspire the best in others and overcome some of the less wonderful practices that exploit people during the most trying of times.

Spring break in Boston

Back Bay neighborhood, Boston

At my university we’re observing that annual academic ritual known as spring break, but Mother Nature has decided not to cooperate with the “spring” part here in Boston and along the east coast. We’re experiencing a major winter storm, and the snow is coming down heavy and wet as I write. It looks like we’ll be dealing with quite an accumulation before it’s over.

I had planned to go into my office today to get some work done, but I’ve decided it will be just as easy to work on stuff at home. Today’s (and perhaps tomorrow’s) tasks are to write a foreword for a colleague’s forthcoming book and a project report. While I might have fewer distractions in the office, I like the idea of being hunkered down at home as the snow continues to fall.

Jamaica Plain neighborhood, Boston

With no classes this week because of the break, I don’t have to worry about rescheduling snowed-out class sessions. Instead, I can once again appreciate the convenience and flexibility of being able to work from virtually any location where I can turn on my computer and access the Internet.

I count myself especially fortunate to be back home today, as this appeared to be a questionable proposition during a weekend visit with friends in northern Virginia, right outside of Washington D.C. As the winter storm forecast became more dire, my prospects for flying out of Dulles airport last night started to look a tad iffy. As luck would have it, I was on one of the last flights to land at Boston’s Logan airport, per the JetBlue arrivals board below.

Monday night JetBlue arrivals board, Logan Airport, Boston

The world of work during Boston’s record breaking winter

The lovely walk home from the subway, earlier this month

The lovely walk home from the subway, earlier this month, Jamaica Plain, Boston (Photo: DY)

With a bit of the white stuff falling upon us on Sunday evening, we did it: Boston broke its all-time record for snowfall! That’s 108.6 inches of snow, breaking the previous record of 107.6 inches during 1995-96. Oh boy, it’s time to celebrate, yes?! Like when the Patriots won the Super Bowl, or when the Red Sox won the World Series. Hip hip hooray!


Folks, this has been a brutal winter here. And it has wreaked havoc on the world of work.

The economic effect has been especially harsh on wage workers who either couldn’t get to work or found their places of employment closed down while the city dug out from the latest mega-storm. It also has been very harsh on retail businesses who depend on pedestrian foot traffic to buy goods and services.

If you’re in real estate, the market, well, kinda froze. After all, it’s hard to host an open house or a showing when the roads and public transportation are shut down.

Public workers involved in snow removal and public transportation had their work cut out for them. If you drove one of the city’s plow trucks during the four worst weeks of January and February, I wonder if you were ever permitted to leave your vehicle. Boston’s public transit system took some well-deserved criticisms, but the rank-and-file workers who helped to get things moving again deserved much praise.

There were multiple days when just about everything was shut down. How many thousands of meetings, appointments, and just about every other type of face-to-face event were cancelled during this time?

God have mercy on anyone who worked in customer service at Logan Airport.

Those of us who teach experienced unprecedented numbers of snow days. The first snow day was really cool. The second one, still a bit of a novelty. And then it got old fast. In higher ed, we’re doing make-up classes whenever we can squeeze them in. K-through-12 educators probably will be in their classrooms until August! (Just kidding, but only slightly.)

If you own a plow truck and a snowblower, you may have made a mint doing freelance jobs, like the guys who picked up a quick wad of cash from me when I realized that I could shovel for 12 hours and barely make a dent. Same thing if you did snow and ice removal from roofs. However, my guess is that you had your fill of that work even with the extra cash.

Maybe it’s the Cancerian in me talking, but I believe that someday, we’ll look back at this winter with a sort of fond nostalgia. Or maybe I’m just being delusional. Whatever, we’ll see.

Looking down my street at what is supposed to be the sidewalk, during one of the February blizzards, Jamaica Plain, Boston. (Photo: DY, 2015)

Looking at what is supposed to be the sidewalk alongside my building, during one of the February blizzards, Jamaica Plain, Boston. (Photo: DY, 2015)

Working Notes: Disaster preparedness, UMass takes on workplace bullying, and Labor’s Plan B

Several items of interest to start off the work week:

Workforce Management on Disaster Preparedness

In the aftermath of destructive tornadoes in America’s heartland, the always helpful Workforce Management gathers information on disaster preparedness:

Sometimes there is warning, other times disaster strikes unexpectedly. What are best practices on an issue like this? The following stories from the Workforce archives as well as several related Forum Discussion posts offer perspective on how to cope when a disaster hits.

I wish it wasn’t so necessary to do contingency planning for disaster. But as the Marathon bombings in Boston last month and the powerfully destructive tornado in Moore, Oklahoma remind us, being prepared can save lives.

University of Massachusetts Takes on Workplace Bullying

Over the years, I’ve heard from a lot of University of Massachusetts employees about workplace bullying. That’s why I’m glad to see this development, as reported by Scott Merzbach for the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

Saying he wants the University of Massachusetts to do better, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has launched a campaign to address workplace bullying.

In a memo sent to faculty and staff Thursday, Subbaswamy wrote that the university will be taking steps to deal with the bullying at UMass that came to light in a survey released in September.

“While the numbers were consistent with those found at workplaces of all types throughout the country, this is clearly an area in which UMass Amherst aspires to be something much better than average,” Subbaswamy wrote.

Labor’s Plan B: Self-Organizing at the Grassroots

Abby Rapoport writes for the American Prospect about a new initiative to create a resurgent labor movement :

A week ago, labor-rights group Working America launched  . . . The website is yet another attempt by the country’s once-powerful union movement to connect to workers in an increasingly hostile national workplace.

“We also are trying to find new ways for workers to have representation on the job,” writes Working America spokesperson Aruna Jain in an email. “We want to train and educate people on how to self-organize, and to learn collective action—the single most effective way of improving their working conditions. This is one way we can start that process.”

The site, which is being rolled out slowly and in stages, is meant to give workers the resources they need to organize themselves and demand changes—regardless of whether or not an actual union comes together.

American workers are under assault, and this will continue so long as they believe that rugged individualism, supported by benevolent employers and the HR office, will provide them with good, secure jobs and decent working conditions.

Waiting for Nemo


Bloggers and Facebookers across America can thank The Weather Channel for naming severe winter storms, thereby saving us from writing “blizzard in New England and the Northeast” over and again. (I’ve read that the National Weather Service is less than happy about a commercial entity getting into the storm-naming business.)

In any event, the world of work already has been profoundly affected by Nemo, even though the current snowfall here in Boston amounts to heavy flurries. (Not to worry, it will get much worse; there’s virtually no chance that this is a false alarm.) Even last night, the streets of downtown Boston were oddly empty, as if folks were trying to get a 24-hour head start on the storm.

This morning, the city is in shutdown mode, with schools, universities, and public offices closed for the day and into the weekend, and many businesses doing the same as well. Most of our public transportation system will be off the rails and road by mid-afternoon.

For many of us whose work involves pen, paper, and keyboard, Nemo means work-at-home days, so long as the power stays on. Nevertheless, there is a distracting buzz about this storm, not unlike the mega-hours of excited, televised chatter preceding the Super Bowl. Given that I have a lot of stuff to do, I’ll try to use this time productively and not get overly caught up in the hype.

For public safety and utility workers, Nemo will be prime time. Fair or not, we tend to judge their performance during these events; on other occasions, we typically take them for granted.

Unfortunately, a good number of people are going to lose a day or two of hourly wages, for “snow day” means “no pay.” The same goes for businesses that count on walk-in customer traffic everyday. A restaurant that closes for a couple of days due to weather isn’t going to make up lost sales.

Of course, if you’re an airline customer service rep right now, you might wish that you, too, were told not to show up for work. Never a cushy job during normal times, it would easily make my top ten list of “most stressful jobs during inclement weather” list.

If you’re in Nemo’s path, please keep safe and warm!

Working Notes: Orlando Sentinel on workplace bullying, Sandy bridges a divide, Kennemer’s scariest workplace practices

I periodically use this Working Notes feature to highlight items worthy of our attention. Here are three for this week:

1. Orlando SentinelGreg Dawson’s piece on workplace bullying opens with the story of Laura Dunavent, a target of workplace bullying turned advocate for the Healthy Workplace Bill:

Laura Dunavent’s voice still quavers when she recalls the darkest chapter of her life.

“I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew is that it made me crazy.”

It wasn’t until after Dunavent, a registered ER nurse, quit her job as a case manager for an Orlando insurance carrier — “so I wouldn’t go out of my mind” — that she discovered a name for the emotional torture she says she experienced at work.



…bullying is still in the embryonic stages as a political issue. The [Workplace Bullying Institute] is chief advocate for the legislation drafted by David Yamada, a professor specializing in labor and employment law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

2. Hurricane Sandy’s other unanticipated power — Obviously, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy has been the story of the week, and it will continue to dominate the news for some time, especially in the most affected states. In addition, during the past day, we’ve seen heavy coverage of President Obama’s visit to storm-ravaged New Jersey, accompanied closely by New Jersey Governor and outspoken Obama critic Chris Christie.

The two have put aside their political differences to address the task at hand, and it was clear that a physically and emotionally exhausted Christie was genuinely appreciative of the President’s efforts to help his state.

As this distasteful campaign season comes to a merciful end, it’s sad that it took a disaster of such proportions to get our leaders to drop the attacking rhetoric and embrace a true spirit of can-do non-partisanship. However, maybe the images and attitudes will serve as a lesson that endures beyond Hurricane Sandy and Election Day.

3. The People Group’s 5 scariest workplace practices — Kevin Kennemer, principal of The People Group, celebrated Halloween by sharing his 5 scariest workplace practices:

  1. Attendance policies (you hire adults – treat them like it)
  2. Employees must ask permission to leave the office or take PTO (it is not high school anymore)
  3. Incivility and cut-throat politics (it might be funny on reality TV, but not at work)
  4. Supervisors who value face-time over results (it’s not the 1950′s anymore we are all digitally connected and can work anywhere, anyplace, anytime)
  5. A CEO who fails to see the importance of company culture (these companies have lower revenue, two-times the turnover, higher levels of stress, higher healthcare costs, and employee relations nightmares waiting around almost every corner)

Hurricane Sandy and work: Vacation days, anxiety, stress, and overtime

Natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy affect different workers in different ways. Here’s a sampling:

If Sandy is giving you an unexpected vacation day or two, then consider yourself lucky. For millions of other workers, Sandy is a bad, unwanted present that will keep on giving.

For retailers, restaurants, and other businesses that depend upon daily sales receipts and need a safe & secure storefront, Sandy is, at best, a source of deep anxiety and, at worst, a huge blow to the bottom line.

Especially for wage workers at these businesses, lost days of work mean smaller paychecks at a time when money already is tight.

For those working in the passenger transportation business — such commercial airlines, Amtrak, and intercity bus companies — it’s stress meeting stress. Those stranded away from their families and jobs are anxious about getting home, and workers on the receiving end of their long lines, phone calls, and emails are feeling it as well.

If you’ve needed help during Sandy, chances are good that unionized workers — the same people so demonized by the anti-labor far right — have provided a hand. They include police officers, firefighters, and other public safety workers, as well as countless crews from utility companies. Yup, some may be getting overtime pay for helping us through this, but I think we’d agree it’s a worthy expenditure.

Weather and work

So…what are the ties between weather and work?

I recently returned from my annual storm chase vacation in America’s heartland, and I was reminded once more that weather often has an impact on our work lives. Here are three previous posts on those themes:

1. Labors of Love: Chasing Tornadoes (2008) — About folks who chase tornadoes for a living, at least for a chunk of the year!

2. Working in a blizzard (2010) — It means different things to different workers.

3. Waiting for Irene with geeky gadgets and water bottles (2011) — Waiting for a hurricane has a way putting everything else on hold.

By the way, that’s a tornado lowering behind me in central Colorado two weeks ago!

Waiting for Irene with geeky gadgets and water bottles

I’m waiting in Boston for the inevitable arrival of Hurricane Irene, and after I collected provisions for a possible loss of electricity and water supply, my thoughts turned to how I connect with the outside world and get some work done if things go down. As someone who makes a living exchanging information and ideas, the possibility of being cut off from lines of communication sets off my anxiety.

Here’s the “kit” I assembled in response:

  • A portable Radio Shack AM/FM/NOAA radio, with new backup batteries;
  • Clock radio, with a new backup 9v battery;
  • My ancient cell phone, a flip-style dumb phone with an antennae;
  • Laptop with a typical Mac battery that will poop out after a few hours;
  • iPad with 3g connection & battery that should hold out for 9-10 hours;
  • iPod with a bunch of music and audio lectures stored;
  • Kindle e-reader with the portable clip-on light I bought at Barnes & Noble yesterday. and,
  • Extra notebooks and pens.

Basic human needs

Yup, this is the list of a professor and information junkie. But perhaps it also betrays my avoidance of dwelling upon our collective helplessness in facing the powers of a hurricane making a beeline this way. Even with a weaker hurricane, we are reduced to thinking about survival. The possibilities include:

  • Physical harm
  • Structural building damage
  • Basement flooding
  • No electricity
  • No water

Much of this is now in nature’s/God’s/Irene’s hands at this point. In the event of losing power and water, I’ve tried to accumulate enough provisions to last for several days. (Corn nuts or Jack Links “prime rib,” anyone?)

Different things

As I attend to my own situation, the threat of severe weather means different things to different workers. For those in the weather business, this is game time — the playoffs if not the Super Bowl. The same goes for workers in many public safety fields.

If you have a business in a store front that may be in harm’s way, there is considerable anxiety about damage. If that business is seasonal, there’s a likely loss of income in the midst of a difficult economy.

Retail workers at supermarkets, convenience stores, and hardware stores are dealing with lines of customers, many of whom waited until the last minute to get storm provisions.

Water bottles

Merely contemplating the loss of water over an extended period of time has triggered a sort of psychosomatic thirst for cold, clean water. As I filled up water bottles and containers, I found myself gulping down glasses of H2O.

One of the water bottles I filled was a thank-you gift for donating to the Mercy Corps, an international non-profit agency that supports disaster relief, sustainable development, and health and nutrition programs for those in dire need. The twist was not lost on me: All I had to do was turn on the tap to get as much clean water as I needed. Hundreds of millions of people — the very folks supported by the Mercy Corps — do not enjoy that luxury.

The possibilities I’m hoping to avoid — which at their very worst likely would be measured in months — are lifelong experiences for so many others.

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