Employees, employers find ways to make do

  • Annie K. Sullivan, an associate account executive at IMRE Communications, is pictured working in her office on Tuesday. She was snowed in on Monday and worked from home. "It really wasn't that big of a difference. I just did everything in bed as opposed to sitting at my desk," she said. "I felt guilty about not being [at work], but I think the guilt fueled me to work harder."
Annie K. Sullivan, an associate account executive at IMRE Communications,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
February 11, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes and Lorraine Mirabella

Emergency room worker Veronica Jones was relieved to find a 7-Eleven open in downtown Baltimore at the height of Wednesday's snowstorm. She needed to pick up the provisions of a marooned employee: laundry detergent to wash work clothes and a half-dozen doughnuts.

Snow might fall in Maryland, stranding employees and shuttering storefronts. But many workplaces simply can't shut down. And in a global marketplace, stock markets remain open, customers demand service, factories chug along.

So workers improvised. Many telecommuted. Others slept in hotels near the office or bunked at their desks. Workers deemed essential by their employers - including those who staff hospitals, financial service firms and a Baltimore County steel mill - brought changes of clothes and made do.

"I've been at the hotel longer than I thought I would be," said Jones, who works at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "I only thought it would be a couple of days. I've run out of everything."

Even before the snow hit over the weekend, businesses were coping with a tough economy and demands for increased productivity. Faced with the second major storm in less than a week, employers and workers navigated leave policies and tried in any way they could to keep working and earning.

Some manufacturing workers found that a plant's production must go on. At the Sparrows Point steel mill in eastern Baltimore County, it's "business as usual," according to Bette Kovach, spokeswoman for owner Severstal North America.

The plant's blast furnace can be slowed but not stopped without steep costs, so employees worked double shifts and slept where they could find space at the facility. Workers were instructed to bring a change of clothes, and a caterer was hired to serve them hot food.

"We need people to operate equipment, and you can't do that remotely," Kovach said. "Our employees were tremendously faithful," Kovach said.

Some workers found that working from home in the middle of a snowstorm that paralyzed the region didn't mean less work.

Annie K. Sullivan, who works for IMRE, a marketing and public relations firm in Sparks, worked from her Mount Washington home on Wednesday. It was the second day this week she telecommuted, joining in conference calls and keeping in touch with her colleagues via instant-messaging software.

Feeling guilty about not being able to show up at the office earlier in the week, Sullivan said she found herself working even more diligently.

"It really wasn't that big of a difference; I just did everything in bed as opposed to sitting at my desk," said the associate account executive, who made it to the Sparks office on Tuesday. "I felt guilty about not being [at work], but I think the guilt fueled me to work harder."

Other manufacturers, such as spice maker McCormick and Co., based in Hunt Valley, canceled work shifts Wednesday. It's the second time in less than a week it stopped production, the first being on Saturday. The last time the company was forced to close for severe weather was in the mid-1990s.

"In severe circumstances, a decision is made to shut down operations," said Jim Lynn, a McCormick spokesman. "We have inventory to buffer a short stop in production."

Some companies put into place contingency plans to ensure they could continue.

T. Rowe Price, a money management firm, identified several hundred "essential" workers - traders, portfolio managers, client service representatives and operations workers - at its downtown Baltimore headquarters and Owings Mills campus. The company provided hotel rooms and shuttles.

"We're open for business ... because the security markets are open," said Edward T. Giltenan, a company spokesman.

While the snowstorms might have a temporary economic impact on some businesses, such as construction and manufacturing, that can make up for lost production in later months, the weather might have a deeper impact on the hospitality and leisure industries, which might not be able to make up for canceled hotel stays, dinners and conferences. Unanticipated costs such as overtime pay also can hurt bottom lines.

Anirban Basu, chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group, an economic consulting firm, said storm disruptions "impact cash flow right now and … anything that impacts cash flow can be quite painful." He added: "This increases vulnerability for many businesses, particularly small business and the type of businesses dependent on short-term flows of cash."

Nonetheless, Maryland has a strong professional services sector that can often work remotely, Basu said.

"Attorneys are still writing legal briefs today, even though they're not in the office," said Basu, who worked from home Wednesday. "And economists are generating forecasts, even though they're not in the office."

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