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Many workers find a way to get to the job, even in a blizzard

By Carol Morello and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A05

Jeff Campbell has been at his job as a security officer since Friday, sleeping in a chair and eating military MREs. Andre Wye left home at 4 a.m. Monday to drive 25 scary, slippery miles to the supermarket where he's a cashier. Sia Gbolie deposited her teenage son with a neighbor and camped out with a friend who lives near her job as a home care nurse.

In the aftermath of the weekend snowstorm, federal government offices closed, courts took only emergency cases and many private companies stayed shut.

But being snowbound was not an option for the army of service workers who staff the area's restaurants and hotels, guard its offices and government buildings, restock grocery shelves and clean houses. Many went to extraordinary lengths to get to work during and after the storm, driven by dedication -- and their need for a paycheck.

"The trap for many workers is one of no work, no pay," said Joslyn Williams, head of the Metropolitan Washington Council, speaking from his home since the umbrella organization for local labor unions didn't open Monday. "Unlike white-collar workers, they've got to find a way in."

Some managers were taking it upon themselves to get their workers to the job.

Ever since the storm began, Stuart Long, owner of the Hawk 'n' Dove bar on Pennsylvania Avenue, has arrived at work, looked around to see who's missing and driven to the suburbs in his Toyota Tundra to fetch them.

"They try to get to work, but sometimes you have to go get them," he said. "I'm going to have to do it till the surface buses start running."

Nearly impassable roads were not necessarily a deterrence.

Wye, 45, who lives in Prince George's County, slowly guided his car in the hours before dawn Monday along deserted roads that were slick with ice. A few small hills posed such a challenge he had to reverse and try again, needing a running start to get the momentum that would carry him up and over. The 25-mile drive to the McLean Safeway where he works took two hours longer than usual.

The cashiers swapped tales of what it took to get to work.

"I was the only one who had to drive backwards," Wye said.

Gbolie came into the city Friday with an overnight bag.

She can't afford to miss even one night of work because of the weather, said Gbolie, 49, who earns $25 an hour as a licensed practical nurse caring for an elderly man.

"If you don't work, you don't get paid," said Gbolie. She has a 17-year-old son and a daughter in college. Everything depends on what she earns. "You have to make every effort to go to work."

Although most federal offices were closed, a skeletal staff of about 200 printers and security officers for the Government Printing Office were at work Monday. Sheley Welcher, 40, an assistant production manager whose husband drove her into work from their home in Clinton, said the White House and Congress had several reports that needed printing.

"I could stay home," she said. "But I know if I did that, this work wouldn't get done."

Campbell, a security officer at the printing office who went home Monday night for the first time since arriving to work on Friday, said he was fortunate to find a chair to recline in so he could sleep four hours a night.

"I don't mind putting in the time," he said. "That's why I wear a uniform. What's good about times like this is the camaraderie of working together as a team, getting your mission accomplished. That's what you remember, the camaraderie."

Even offices that were closed needed some workers.

Francisco Ramirez, 39, a Salvadoran-born janitor who is paid $9 an hour at two jobs cleaning offices, drove through unplowed streets and took several detours to get to work by 6:30 a.m. Monday.

At the first office, more than half the employees were working from home. But those who did show up tracked in salt crystals, sand and slush.

"It makes it so much harder to clean the floors and carpets," said Ramirez, speaking on his cellphone. "I keep cleaning and then having to go back and do it all over."

Ghebrai Asmerom drove his taxi from his home in Silver Spring to BWI Marshall Airport even knowing it was closed, hoping in vain to find stranded travelers in search of a ride home. He has a $302 monthly note on his cab, he owes the airport $8,700 for a pick-up lease and he helps support an extended family, so he was desperate to find fares.

As he drove on the Beltway Monday afternoon, Asmerom predicted fares would be fewer and competition fiercer. "They're going to have their meetings and conferences through telecommuting, and all of the taxis will be fighting for customers."

Antoine Redding, 30, took 3 1/2 hours and four trains to get from his home in Baltimore to Harry's Tap Room in Arlington County, where he works as a host.

"I work at a restaurant, and they're always open, so I had to come to work," he said. "I've got to pay my bills, so I've got to come in."

He said that if a blizzard hits later this week, he will still come in as long as the trains are running.

"I'm kind of dedicated like that," he said.

Staff writers Tara Bahrampour, Michelle Boorstein, Hamil Harris, Lisa Rein and Lynda Robinson contributed to this report.

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