BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- George Colon and his girlfriend were standing by a bus stop in Brooklyn on Thursday, checking the time on their phones. Every hour that ticked by was another hour without pay. Hurricane Sandy had already deprived them of two days of work, at a current total of around $400. "It's going to be tight this month," Colon said.
As the Northeast reels from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy, some are starting to feel the storm's impact in their paychecks. Millions of people, many of them low-wage workers, are forgoing pay as they find themselves unable to get to work due to a crippled mass-transit system. Others are losing paychecks because their employers are shuttered, lacking power and confronting flood damage.
Colon and his girlfriend both work at a Brooklyn gift shop just a few miles from their home, but to get there today they calculated that the commute would require four buses -- and take about four hours. Colon was already late and still had hours to go. Each hour would cost him another $11, he said.
Economists say that low-wage, hourly workers are the hardest hit by disasters like Sandy. "Non-salaried workers are really at the mercy of their employers," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “If the business closes because of the storm, employers don’t have to pay non-salaried workers for lost wages. And if the business is open, but the worker can’t make it into work, employers are also not required to pay for lost wages. And in most cases, they won’t.”
There are more than 8.5 million people employed in the New York metro area (including New Jersey and Connecticut), according to the EPI. The Center for Economic and Policy Research, another Washington think tank, estimates that 60 percent of all employed people in the US receive hourly pay. Compounding the damage to low-wage workers' pay is the fact that they are less capable of recouping lost wages than salaried employees are, said Frank Braconi, chief economist at the New York City Comptroller’s Office.
“My guess is most professional employees, such as salaried workers in the legal or financial industry, are either working from home, have made it in to the office, are in phone contact, and their salaries will be intact more or less,” Braconi said.
“But for hourly paid workers, such as the delivery boy or the shop attendant,” Braconi said, “the situation is going to be much more tenuous. And a third group, the self-employed, are probably the most vulnerable to the storm and its aftermath, as their business may have come to a literal standstill.”
While salaried employees will be able to recoup some of their lost business when they return to the office, “at the low end of the wage scale, those lost revenues aren’t going to come back,” Braconi said.
While some workers will be entitled to unemployment if their employer remains closed, those benefits won't kick in for at least a week. Like many states, New York and New Jersey both have a so-called "waiting week" when it comes to unemployment payments.
Across the street from where Colon stood worrying with his girlfriend on Thursday, thousands of people were lined up at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, also attempting to board buses. By around 10 a.m., the line of commuters snaked through a maze of metal police barriers, making its way along the length of the arena and around the corner.
When the center opened earlier this year, people in Brooklyn worried it would bring too much traffic to the area. Local residents argued the pros and cons of the arrival of the Brooklyn Nets, who were originally scheduled to play their opening game Thursday night against the Knicks before a crowd of high-paying fans. As it turned out, the center drew a very different crowd the morning of the postponed game: frustrated New Yorkers worried about much-needed pay.
For the first time since Sunday, the Metropolitan Transit Authority had restored some subway service to parts of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, but wide swaths of Brooklyn and other parts of the city were still without trains.
Ahsan Bachu, a Coney Island resident who works at a newsstand at Grand Central Terminal in Midtown, said he had already missed three days of work because of Sandy. He said he hoped his boss would "give him a break" so he doesn't lose out on three days' earnings, but wasn't even sure where the bus he was in line for would take him -- or whether Grand Central would be open if and when he finally arrived.
It had taken Bachu two hours of travel just to get from Coney Island to the Barclays Center, he said. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I've got to try," he added.
In line for a different bus stood Renee Fleming, who works for a telemarketer in Brooklyn and had missed out on $8 an hour, plus commissions, for three days straight. Fleming was angry about the lack of information from the MTA and said the week would cut into her savings. "I don't have cab fare, and I barely can pay my little rent," she said.
Even people who had very short commutes were losing money because of the storm. A man who was grilling chicken at a lunch cart near the massive lines at the Barclays Center said it normally takes him seven minutes to drive there from his garage. Today, it took him an hour.
When he arrived, he said, police officers made him move the cart a block away from the station entrance because a shuttle bus was picking up passengers there. The move put him a block away from the main pedestrian thoroughfare. He said would likely lose half his daily income as a result.