Can 285,000 Long Islanders Work From Home?

We’re on the cusp of one of the greatest unplanned sociological experiments of our era concerning work habits and the limitations of technology.

On Sunday, as the minute hand of the clock crosses midnight, the union workers of the Long Island Railroad may be walking off the job over a tiny discrepancy in pay. The Metro Transit Authority has offered LIRR workers a 17% raise over six years but the union says it’s entitled to this raise over six years. And they’re doing what unions do best – making threats against the constituency that keeps them in business in the first place.

And now, we may be about to find out whether the 285,000 or so daily Long Island Railroad commuters can actually get by without taking the trains into Brooklyn or Manhattan. At least for a little while.

Even if the strike only lasts a few days or a week, the outcome will be very interesting. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, most of us islanders made out the best we could without commuting, even without electricity or communications, but that was an emergency. This will not be. We’ll all be on our phones and mobile computers, we’ll all have full internet and battery juice.

The LIRR has been ferrying Long Islanders into the boroughs since 1834 and today it runs on a budget of about $1.8 billion – all of it funded by taxpayers and the riders themselves. Approximately 81.75 million people take a train on one of its 11 lines each year, getting on and off at one of the system’s 124 stops. The necessity of all of this ridership is almost never questioned, but perhaps it should be.

Personally, I think I’d be 90% fine. My whole team is reachable and all of my clients would be. All of the software we use to power our business and monitor systems is virtual or web-based. Any meetings or lunches could be rescheduled or carried out by phone. In fact, the only thing I’d need to cancel would be television appearances from New Jersey or 30 Rock. The highways, bridges and tunnels are locked in a permafrost of traffic even on normal days, so obviously they’ll become utterly un-passable during an event like this. Driving is clearly not going to be a real option for anyone except the sick f*cks who want to wake up at 3:30 am.

But my colleagues and I in the independent wealth management industry are fortunate. We don’t have hardcore facilities we’re commuting to each day or a retail storefront that needs to be opened. The majority of what we do can be done from just about anywhere and frequently is. How many other industries are increasingly becoming more like ours? How many can in the future?

To be sure, there are many businesses that would be devastated – both here on the Island and in the city itself, where tens of thousands of vendors count on the commuters coming and going each day, consuming everything from dry cleaning to donuts along their route. Which is probably why Governor Andrew Cuomo intervenes sooner rather than later in what seems to be a ridiculous dispute over very little other than pride points.

The longer a strike does go on, the more both the MTA and the union have to lose – but not just monetarily. By denying Long Islanders their commute, they may find that more of us get accustomed to not commuting at all – and that we have almost zero perceptible consequences as a result.

The latest on the LIRR strike here at Newsday.

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