June 12, 2020

The pandemic job divide: Those who can stay safe at home, and those who can’t


People who can’t work from home don’t have the luxury of calculating coronavirus risk.

Joe is one of millions of workers who takes his life into his hands as reopenings around the US mean people are returning to work. At the Target Starbucks where he works, the shifts can be harrowing. The store is crowded. Customers aren’t required to wear masks. The plexiglass sneeze guard only reaches up to his throat.

“All the employees are doing a really good job at protecting ourselves, but the biggest issues are customers,” Joe says. Most customers won’t wear masks and often fail to stay 6 feet away, sometimes tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention. “It feels like I’m walking into a place that’s not safe for me.”

The American workforce has always been subject to divisions — white collar vs. blue collar, salaried vs. hourly, managers vs. the managed. The coronavirus pandemic has essentially split those lucky enough to still be employed into two categories: workers who can work from home and workers who cannot.

Until a vaccine is found and widely distributed, many white-collar workers are likely to continue to work from home. Meanwhile, workers who can’t — who already faced layoffs or furloughs in droves, or were deemed “essential” and told to keep going in — are going to be pushed into more dangerous jobs. The two groups have fundamentally different ways of interacting with and experiencing the world in the midst of a global pandemic — differences that likely won’t fade anytime soon.

It’s yet another way the coronavirus has exacerbated inequalities in America along socioeconomic, racial, and gender lines, as well as the disproportionate risks and stresses different groups face. Workers with more credentials, who are generally well-paid, and white, are likelier to be able to stay home than workers who have fewer credentials, are lower-paid, and who are black or Hispanic.

People who have to leave their homes every day to do their jobs are making sacrifices and taking on more risk than people who do not. As the economy reopens, the office worker who’s been at home all week can, over the weekend, make the calculation of whether they feel like going back to their favorite restaurant is worth taking a gamble. The server at that restaurant, if they want to make a living, has no choice but to go in, even if it means a higher risk of contact with the coronavirus.

“Who is considered an essential worker? Who’s going back to work? Who is doing so perhaps without health insurance, without proper protective gear? It’s an expectation that some will be served — they’re rich and tend to be fairly white people. They will be among those who are served, and they will be served by people who are disproportionately marginalized workers,” said Kim Weeden, a Cornell University sociologist. “This is a predictable outcome of a society that is so unequal in terms of not only income but also access to things like paid leave and health insurance.”

A Target spokesperson pointed to an online hub outlining its social distancing and safety measures and said when associates express concerns, there are actions they can take — for example, increasing the frequency of store announcements about social distancing. Where local governments ask residents to wear masks, so does Target. But in places where that’s not the case, it does not. And so how safe workers are depends on what Target and its customers choose to do.

As America returns to work, reckoning with this worker dichotomy will be a tremendous challenge in keeping workers safe and controlling the spread of the virus.

At work and at risk

Amazon warehouse workers during the pandemic get an official notice via text message when someone gets sick. “We wanted to let you know we have a confirmed case of COVID-19 [at your location],” a text message shared with Vox from an Amazon worker in Maryland reads. It lists the last date the infected person was on-site, says the company will reach out to anyone in close contact with the individual, and lists the steps it has taken to try to keep workers safe.

“The first time we got that text, it was like, oh my god, you know?” the Amazon worker, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. Now he’s gotten used to it. The day we spoke in May, he had received a text saying “multiple people” had confirmed diagnoses at the distribution center. “It was just plural. Could it be two? Could it be three? Could it be five? That was left to our imagination,” he said.

This is how contact tracing is supposed to work — an Amazon spokeswoman said the company communicates to everyone in a building when someone has a confirmed coronavirus case, regardless of whether or not they had close contact with the person. Still, to have alerts coming from your employer multiple times a week about potential contact with Covid-19 without knowledge of your true level of exposure is extremely stressful and a constant reminder of the very real health risk.

While the number of new coronavirus cases is on the decline from its peak in the US, the people most at risk of becoming infected are those who are most out in the world, and many of those are people going to work.

According to an analysis from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, many New York City communities with large concentrations of front-line service workers saw higher rates of coronavirus cases. Many of those neighborhoods are disproportionately communities of color and have a higher rent burden. A BuzzFeed analysis found similar trends playing out in cities such as Chicago.

Research led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that workplace transmission of Covid-19 likely played a significant role in the local spread of the virus during the early stages of the outbreak in six Asian countries. Health care workers accounted for most work-related cases, followed by drivers and transport workers, services and sales workers, janitorial and domestic workers, and public safety workers.

“[For those working on-site], these workers tend to very often have low and flat earnings profiles, very oftentimes without medical benefits and in some instances without adequate PPE,” Bradley Hardy, an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University, told me in an email, referring to workers in the US. “I suspect those who are employed are happy to have a job, but it is the idea of not having the equipment to stay safe that probably rankles many.”

Many essential workers have reported their employers were slow to provide them with basic safety protections, and even though many companies have caught up, in some situations, protections are still lacking, or the expectations of work make procedures impossible to abide by. If a pharmacy cuts the number of employees in a store to try to help with social distancing but then expects those employees to clean the store every half hour while also attending to customers, ultimately, something’s got to give.

Amazon said the company has invested more than $800 million in safety measures this year and implemented dozens of new process changes. The Amazon distribution center worker told me that. indeed. higher-ups have taken a number of steps to try to improve safety — cleaning, social distancing, staggered breaks. But one thing hasn’t changed: the goal to get out 18,000 packages during his shift. “They have in some ways sacrificed efficiency and productivity … but they haven’t adjusted their goals, so we’ve always done 18,000 packages,” he said. “If we really wanted to do the best we can and maintain social distance, they would have slashed that number.”

He added, “People sacrifice 6 feet to get things done on time, and it sucks.”

The workers most vulnerable to the coronavirus are already vulnerable in other ways

Curt, who works at a McDonald’s in Boston, is 19 and makes $12 an hour working part-time. When the pandemic hit, he thought about quitting but didn’t. “I was going to stop working, but then my mom, she got her pay cut at her work, so then I decided I would continue working, and I picked up the slack where she couldn’t make up the money for bills and stuff.”

Customers, he says, have been less than fun to deal with during all of this. His store has a limited menu, and now when machines break down, they take longer to fix. “They get really mad,” he told me. “You just have to understand that we can’t do these things, that things break down a lot at McDonald’s, it just happens, and we can’t get a technician in the next day.”

Curt isn’t alone in his age cohort when it comes to lacking the ability to work from home if he chooses. According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, only 6.7 percent of workers ages 15-24 are able to telework. It’s not necessarily surprising, given the type of jobs teenagers and people in their early 20s often land. It’s dangerous for them and their families because they risk getting infected and then infecting older members of their households.

Examining the data on who can and can’t work from home paints a clear picture of who’s taking on risk and who isn’t. According to EPI, 80 percent of black workers and 84 percent of Hispanic workers can’t work from home, and high-wage workers are six times likelier to be able to work from home than low-wage workers. And those low-wage jobs often translate to fewer benefits. Recent research from the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that low-wage workers in Massachusetts have less safety gear, paid sick leave, and health insurance, and they report being less able to meet basic needs, like affording food. The patterns are consistently worse for black and Hispanic workers.

“It magnifies the inequality and disparities we had before, economic and racial inequalities,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. She warned of a “divided world” of haves and have-nots, where people who keep their jobs and work from home are better able to respond.

This isn’t always a cut-and-dried story

Everyone is adjusting to a new normal of work in the era of Covid-19, and for different workers that means different things.

Working from home comes with its own challenges. It can be stressful to develop a routine or to stay organized at home, and all of the supports of the office — technology, a workspace, etc. — has now been decentralized to individual workers. Parents balancing child care duties with working at home are under particular pressure, and in many cases, it is women who wind up taking on the majority of household-related tasks.

Virginia Dressler spends her days at home caring for her 3-year-old twins while managing a career as a digital librarian. Credit Da’Shaunae Marisa for The New York Times

“Yes, I am protected from Covid, I guess, but I can’t actually function and do the work that I’m paid to do, and certainly not at the level I’m paid to do it at, and I’m considered to be one of the lucky ones,” said Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University.

Some essential workers I’ve come into contact with in reporting have said they feel like sacrificial lambs, that their jobs are not expendable but they are. But others are happy to keep going in.

Lorenzo Williams, who works in cybersecurity at the Pentagon, describes going into the office as “refreshing,” a way to find something normal when everything else is not. “My wife works at home, and she’s getting cabin fever, but my coworkers feel the same way — it feels good to be able to come in, have a sense of normalcy, put on a shirt and tie,” he said. At first, he was nervous about going in, but he’s adjusted, and he trusts his bosses and his coworkers. “We do have a sense of holding each other accountable, because if one person gets it, it’s a problem, but they do a really good job.”

Jane Oates, president of employment education campaign WorkingNation and former US assistant labor secretary, pointed out that workers deemed nonessential during the pandemic may hold onto some resentment once they head back to work, noting that it’s been an issue during government shutdowns in the past. “It will be very interesting to see as businesses reopen, and they were forced to make that decision about essential and nonessential, what the long-term impact is on retention, the loyalty to the company,” she said.

Coronavirus is still very much a reality in the US and around the globe, and for different people, including workers, it means different things. People who can’t work from home certainly aren’t a monolith, but they’re experiencing the pandemic in different ways than people who can, and the risk they’re at, both in terms of health and economics, is often higher.

Naomi, a Walmart worker in Indiana, told me she has “mixed feelings” about her position in the current moment. “There’s definitely part of me who wishes I could work from home or wishes I could have time off, but at the same time, I’m so thankful I have an income,” she told me.

She works in online pickups at the store, which has seen a huge rise in business, makes $15.30 an hour, and manages about 25 associates. Some of them have stopped coming into work, she’s not sure why, so that’s been extra stress. So has hurriedly trying to get shopping done for customers while wearing a mask. “It’s not easy to do aerobic exercise wearing face masks all day,” she said.

Naomi told me that she would “love to stay home” and get her work done, but right now, that’s not an option. At the very least, she wishes people would give a little more recognition to classes of workers who have been discounted in the past. “There’s so many things I don’t want us to go back to,” she said, “and one of them is underappreciating all segments of the workforce.”

By Emily Stewart

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