Storm costs: Overtime for some, lost wages for others

In this view looking at I-75 north at Moores Mill Rd., motorists get out of their vehicles to chat near abandoned cars along the ice-covered interstate after a winter snow storm slammed the city with over 2 inches of snow that turned highways into parking lots creating massive traffic jams lasting through Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta.

Credit: David Tulis/AP

Credit: David Tulis/AP

In this view looking at I-75 north at Moores Mill Rd., motorists get out of their vehicles to chat near abandoned cars along the ice-covered interstate after a winter snow storm slammed the city with over 2 inches of snow that turned highways into parking lots creating massive traffic jams lasting through Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta.

Tweedy economists and rah-rah metro Atlanta boosters say last week’s snowstorm will have little long-term economic impact, that a dollar not spent at a shuttered shoe store will reappear soon enough at the same shop or another.

But for legions of hourly workers – waitresses, delivery men, hair stylists, landscapers and government contract employees – those delayed dollars may not end up in their pockets. Lost wages will likely remain lost.

“For somebody already on a low budget, you take four days out of the month and that’s a 20 percent pay cut,” Danny Harrison, a school bus driver in Clayton County making $15 an hour, said Wednesday. “Losing $300 is a lot of money.”

In the week since the storm brought metro Atlanta to its knees, businesses, governments and people have been tallying the financial hit of extra services or forced time-off.

Insurers peg property losses — mainly dinged cars and burst pipes — at $10 million and still rising. Georgia Department of Transportation officials say overtime and snow removal cost $3.5 million. Cobb County emergency workers tallied $33,000 in overtime.

Most businesses proclaimed the shutdown something of a nuisance, an unplanned holiday in the midst of a still-recovering economy.

“Most of the economic activity that didn’t go forward last week goes forward this week or over the next few weeks,” said Jeff Humphreys, an economist at the University of Georgia.

“But it really depends on what industry you’re working in. Hourly work that piles up may be waiting for you when you get back to work. But if you’re providing a service, like waiting a table when the restaurant closed, it may not be waiting for you.”

Humphreys says the storm will have “no impact whatsoever” on his 2014 economic forecast for the state or any metro Atlanta county. Some worry conventions may steer clear during the winter, though officials downplay that risk.

“It was very inconvenient, but it doesn’t really change the basic foundations of our economy,” Humphreys said.

Humphreys, though, doesn’t dismiss the financial hit suffered by residents, whether through lost work hours, damaged homes and cars or extra expenses for gas, food and lodging while stuck away from home.

About 1,000 homeowners filed claims for damage caused by burst pipes and flooded rooms, according to Glenn Allen, a spokesman for the state insurance commissioner’s office. About 5,000 auto-damage claims have also been filed.

Claims filed in other states, by truck drivers and others passing through Atlanta’s icy mess, aren’t included. The uninsured and drivers carrying only liability insurance also weren’t added.

“You’ve got a lot of vehicles that are still in the body shop,” Allen said, adding more claims will be tallied early next week. “There are still a lot who haven’t been seen by an adjuster yet.”

State Farm, one Georgia’s largest insurers, has handled more than 1,300 auto and home insurance claims and expects more, spokesman Justin Tomczak said. The insurer set up temporary offices in Kennesaw, Douglasville and Lithonia to handle the onslaught of inspections by claims adjusters.

The preliminary property damage estimate is well short of the $75 million in damage counted from last month’s arctic blast, which didn’t include snow, ice and traffic heartache. Allen said many more homes suffered more and costlier damage during that cold snap.

In addition to GDOT, the Georgia State Patrol put storm-related costs at $26,000 and rising, mostly to feed and house troopers called to metro Atlanta from elsewhere in the state. Officials with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency had yet to tally expenses.

Cobb County’s transportation agency tallied $36,500 in extra pay, gravel and salt, according to spokesman Robert Quigley, in addition to the $33,000 in overtime for first-responders.

In Gwinnett County, the transportation department wracked up more than $35,000 for extra pay and materials, spokesman Joe Sorenson said. No estimate was available for police and fire department overtime. Fulton County did not yet have information on the storm’s cost.

Some school systems incurred costs for keeping facilities open to house stranded students. Cherokee County, for example, spent $2,766 on food for kids and another $1,000 to repair a damaged bus.

Cobb will give 222 employees who stayed overnight with stranded students a paid day off. Hourly workers will get time-and-a-half for their extra hours, district spokesman Jay Dillon said.

In ways small and large, just about every business in the region took a financial hit. Thirty-one of Mack Guest’s trucks were stuck on interstates. They carried frozen foods or chickens for delivery to Kroger, Publix or Walmart.

The goods were eventually delivered. But idling in snow, ice and traffic, for an industry that hopes to net 5 percent profit per load, proved costly. Drivers, in essence, missed a day’s worth of deliveries. Guest, owner of LAD Truck Lines in Watkinsville, said losses “we’re easy into six figures on gross revenue.”

Benning Construction, in Smyrna, didn’t get back to work until Friday, losing time on projects in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Between 600 and 700 hourly construction workers didn’t get paid.

“It was one of those events that happens every 10 or 15 years in Atlanta where the world comes to an end not in a ball of fire, but in a traffic jam,” owner T.R. “Ted” Benning III said. “We don’t know yet what the ramifications will be, but it’s been tough. We finally got a bad winter.”

More than half of Georgia workers, or 2.1 million people, are paid hourly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many could recoup lost wages via future overtime or extra shifts, and some earned more by working long hours during the storm. But most are probably out of luck.

“Salaried workers, if they worked any amount last week, you’ve got to pay them for a full week,” said Dan Turner, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Atlanta who handles employment law. “For hourly employees, once you tell them to go home for inclement weather, you don’t have to do anything more.”

Harrison, the Clayton bus driver, hopes to make up some of the lost $300 via freelance writing assignments.

Danielle Sanders, a part-time employee at a local drivers license office, won’t ever see the money lost when the state shut down the location for two days.

“I love my job and I love to help people, but when it is time for me to be helped nothing happens,” Sanders said.