Many find they're 'essential workers'


Neither snow nor rain nor heat. . . .

The postal service is famous for its effort to process and deliver the mail regardless of the weather.

But mail carriers aren't the only ones who have to work when it snows. Grocery clerks, bus drivers, utility repairmen and even sales people and engineers at many local companies are expected to work regardless of the weather.

"The plant is always open," said Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Linthicum-based Westinghouse Electronics Systems Group, the state's largest private employer with about 15,000 workers.

For some businesses, such as grocery stores, transportation and utility companies, the flurries of snow can create flurries of work.

Yesterday, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. crews worked into the night trying to restore power to about half of nearly 20,000 customers who lost electricity when tree limbs fell onto power lines.

"Our employees have a continuing obligation to report to work as usual," said Peggy Mulloy, a BG&E; spokeswoman. Every worker is given a handbook that emphasizes the importance of their work, especially during bad weather.

Supervisors can approve employee requests for taking a day off or coming in late, but workers must use vacation days or lose their pay, she said.

"We're pretty strict about it because of the type of service we provide," Mulloy said. She said she can recall workers being let go early because of snow only three times in her 13 years with the company.

At Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland, the president or his designated representative is the only one who can decide whether to close a phone office, said Al Burman, the company spokesman.

If an employee is not essential, a supervisor can grant the worker excused time off without pay or make a worker take a vacation or personal leave day if the worker wants to stay home. Burman said unessential workers include those who answer questions about bills. But the phone operators and service workers must continue to work.

Bank employees also are expected to work in the snow. Jerry Baroch, senior executive vice president at the Bank of Baltimore said the chairman of the board, the chief executive officer or himself can decide to modify banking hours, but rarely are the banks closed entirely.

Yesterday, for example, the bank cut back on its drive-through hours, but all operations remained opened until 3 p.m.

At the White Marsh Mall, the decision on whether to close because of weather is made by the mall management and the managers of the department stores. If they agree to close, then the entire mall shuts down. Likewise, if they decide to remain open, all stores in the mall also must remain open, said Janice Biele, manager of sales and marketing for the mall.

"It's all for one and one for all," she said.

Although snow had frightened away many customers yesterday, she said the mall was to stay open during its usual hours.

At the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Helen Dale, manager of public relations, summed up the snow policy: "We work."

All workers, whether they are secretaries, drivers or repairmen, are considered essential.

What about her own job?

"I check with the weather station at midnight and I'm up at 4 a.m. calling the radio stations," she said.

Sometimes bus schedules are modified during the snow, but workers are expected to report to duty. "The service to the public is especially important during inclement weather," she said.

The MTA does abide by the state's liberal leave policy, meaning employees can take vacation days or use personal leave or compensatory time off from work. "But we vigorously encourage workers to be in place," she said.

So who besides school children can anticipate having time off when the flakes fall?

Many federal workers can. The Social Security Administration closed at 1 p.m. yesterday, leaving a recorded message to greet callers.

At Giant Food Inc. headquarters, 1,500 workers also got to go home early yesterday. Barry Scher, the company spokesman, said Giant follows the lead of the federal government in deciding whether to close operations early.

However, stores remain open and grocery clerks are expected to be there to assist customers scrambling for bread and milk.

"When it snows, we are extremely busy," Scher said. But he said the company allows employees to take time off without pay if they can't make it to work.

Hochschilds-Value City in Catonsville allows its hourly workers to take time off without pay, but salaried workers are expected to report to work as usual.

William King, the store's operations manager, said he left for work 1 1/2 hours early yesterday in order to make sure the store was ready for its 10 a.m. opening.

But business was slow and employees waited for word from the store's Ohio-based headquarters that they could close early.

"I don't think we're making any money," King said.

The store closed at 6 p.m., giving workers the night off.

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