Heat Wave 2012 Taking Toll On Small Businesses, Physically And Financially

Working In Heat That 'Can Take Your Breath Away'

On a 100 degree workday, many people have the luxury of complaining about the heat while sitting in an air-conditioned shop or office, sipping iced coffee. Meanwhile, some small business owners and their employees are working outside all day, lightheaded, parched and drenched with sweat, without the benefit of even a little shade.

When Tyler Vickery got into his truck after working last Tuesday, the temperature read 111 degrees. The Nashville We Do Lines franchisee had just spent three to four hours pushing a line-striping machine loaded with paint across an asphalt lot. "The heat, when it comes off the asphalt, can take your breath away," Vickery said. "When I took off my hat, it was like I had put it underwater, and the same with my shirt. It was 100 percent soaked in sweat."

"I didn't feel like I was going to pass out, but several times I knew I needed to sit down right away and drink water," added Vickery, who doesn't recall another summer as hot as this one.

Though the temperatures this week have backed off from the triple-digit range, Vickery's perception is accurate. In June, 164 high-temperature records were tied or broken in the U.S., while 262 daily high records for the Fourth of July were tied or broken. Jeff Weber, a scientist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., recently reported a scary prediction for the rest of the summer: Rising heat starting in the Southwest will roll eastward, bringing with it uncomfortably high temperatures for about 10 days, followed by some cooling for three to four days, followed by another heat wave, etc.

With the latest heat wave alone having claimed 46 lives across the country, Chris Couri, co-founder, president and CEO of We Do Lines, said their workers take precautions, including wearing reflective clothing, hats and collared shirts; drinking plenty of water; and taking breaks to sit in their trucks and blast the air conditioning. "We have to listen to our bodies and, if we feel the effects of the heat, to sit down and take care of that immediately," Couri said.

Though Couri said working in record-breaking heat means slowing down the pace and "not trying to set any world records" to finish a job, he acknowledged that the heat is actually good for business. "We have to take advantage of the weather if it's hot and dry, which are the best conditions for what we do," he said.

Others are not as fortunate. Besides having to suffer physically, some small businesses are also seeing sales drop as the temperatures rise. Tom Norton, who operates a Lawn Doctor lawn care service in the Boston area, said the fertilizers and other products his business uses to improve lawns can have a burning effect on lawns in high heat, so he has to adjust to use slow-release products. To Norton, the one thing worse than working in the heat is not working in the heat, when customers cancel or suspend their lawn services.

"They don't want to waste money caring for their lawns when their lawns are burnt from the sun anyway," he said. "That doesn't help us financially. As much as I love the summer, we can spend a lot of time on customer service issues and problems that come with the heat, like insects and drought conditions."

By the time the temperature in Indianapolis had hit 105 degrees over the past weekend, one of air conditioning units had given out at The Best Chocolate In Town. Supervisor Nancy Bain tried to move the chocolates out of the sun and closer to the one air conditioning unit that was working, but ended up having to toss many of the made-from-scratch chocolates. "It is sad," Bain said of having to throw away melted chocolate.

The problem continued even after the air conditioning unit was fixed. Ironically, more traffic on 100-degree-plus days means more danger to the chocolates. Every time a customer opens the door to the shop, Bain explained, "a blast of hot air comes in," increasing the finely monitored temperature needed to maintain the chocolates' appearance. Bain said the store has already had to close for several full or partial days due to the heat, resulting in estimated losses of anywhere from $500 to $800 a day.

Bain noted the heat this summer has been far worse than any other she can recall, as these problems usually occur later in August, causing the business to close one day or two at the most. Having 10 days over 90 degrees and four days in succession over 100 degrees before mid-July is "absolutely" a concern, Bain said.

But perhaps one of the hottest job this summer is not in the sun but in the bowels of a Times Square subway station. Jainol Abedin, who works at a small newsstand two levels below the New York City street level, said "when it's 90 degrees outside, it's 100 in here. It's hot, dusty, noisy -- there's no fresh air," he said. "The heat makes me feel tired."

Abedin sees a multitude of customers sweating and complaining about the heat, and has sold a lot of cold drinks to help them endure the few minutes they spend waiting for their train. But then they are able to escape into the air-conditioned subway cars, leaving Abedin behind to swelter in his booth. His pessimism comes as no surprise: When it comes to working in the summer heat, Abedin said, "this is only the beginning."

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