My Workplace Is Refusing to Let Us Work From Home During the Pandemic
My employer retaliated against us—then blamed staff for COVID exposures.
Retaliation is prohibited in the strongest terms in our employee manual. HR doth frown upon it sternly. The thing about retaliation in the workplace though, besides being terrible, is that it’s almost impossible to prove. Especially when it’s the head of your agency retaliating against a group of employees. If only he were to come out and say, “I’m retaliating against you because you all dared challenge me during the pandemic.” But alas, my work group won’t get our cartoonish moment where the villain monologues and reveals his whole plan, then we thwart him. We’ll just keep getting crushed under his vengeful thumb bit by bit.
Despite Having a Computer-Based Job, My Director Would Not Let Us Work From Home
Let’s go back to April 2020. This was, globally, an atrocious month. COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire, and many of us poor saps were buckling in for debilitating waves of pandemic anxiety, disruptions to our lives, long-term illness, loss of jobs and the heartbreaking deaths of over half a million of our family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. And we didn’t even fully know it. Many workplaces responded appropriately by shutting down, sending people home and increasing flexibility. On the other hand, many workplaces maintained a “business as usual” approach and insisted employees continue to report for their meager salaries, consequences be damned! My employer was such a one as this.
I really like my job. I really like the people that I work with. But I’m leaving and it’s because of our leadership’s response to the pandemic. In the Before Times, I felt provided for. My government job, while paying me less than the private sector, comes with exceptional benefits, generous leave, security and a decent union. Now I can’t look past the combination of treating us as expendable while also doing everything they could to get out of providing a safe working environment.
What’s my field? I work in recreation and parks, and it’s supposed to be fun. We provide high-value programs, recreation and leisure opportunities to the public who gobble up everything we offer and then ask for more. My group works closely with the public, who I remind you were out there spreading the plague. My job as a supervisor is mostly to be chained to my desk and make sure everything my large group of staff does runs smoothly across all seven days a week.
In April of 2020, when it became clear the pandemic was getting worse and not going away, many county employees went home and stayed there. Many people are successfully teleworking, and their agencies consistently achieve their missions to this day. To telework, or not to telework, is at the discretion of each agency’s director. For my work group, that meant no telework. So we tried to get creative with scheduling, but that wouldn’t fly either. While the Department of Public Works put their employees on an A/B week schedule, my director would hear of no such thing. Many of us have young children who were sent home from school and daycare, and if you’ve lived through the past almost two years, you probably know what a nightmare that has been for so many families and how millions of women, in particular, left the workforce to care for their children. The economic losses, loss of job knowledge and loss of family income from this enormous exodus will continue to plague us for years.
My own toddler was in the care of his grandparents a few days a week. I asked for telework, for flexible hours, for a different schedule, anything, to be able to be home more with him in conjunction with my spouse so that our elderly parents wouldn’t be exposed through us essential employees to the coronavirus. My director denied me repeatedly. In fact, he told me my job could not be done from home, though 90 percent is computer and web-based. Many months and vaccinations later, I can say my having to report to work did not kill my parents or in-laws. Not everyone can say that. One of my colleagues died of COVID after her husband brought it home from work.
My Employer Refused to Provide Paid Sick Leave to Those Who Were Exposed to COVID
Throughout the summer and fall, my team did what we had to, namely, hand out disposable masks at sports tournaments to out-of-state visitors, assist with security for emergency child care centers for more essential employees than ourselves and do every single thing asked of us. Our morning staff started our days at 5:30 a.m., and our evening staff left shortly before midnight. We were stretched thin as a few employees said “fuck this shit” and quit. Sure, our department provided us with masks and hand sanitizer and told us to maintain social distance because six feet is a magical distance past which air particles can’t travel (#sarcasm). We were instructed to keep all windows and doors shut and not to use fans, as moving air around could infect others. When I pointed out that the CDC literally recommended leaving doors and windows open and running fans to improve outdoor/indoor air exchange, I was ignored.
One employee was exposed to COVID by his roommate, and he quarantined until he could test negative. He requested leave reimbursement for this time, according to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. He was denied due to this language from FFCRA: “Under the FFCRA, healthcare providers and emergency responders may be excluded by their employer from paid sick leave and/or expanded family and medical leave.”
His phone conversation with HR went something like this:
HR: You are not eligible for leave reimbursement because of your status as an emergency responder.
Employee: So, you’re telling me someone in the Department of Finance who’s been working from home could be reimbursed for leave if they get exposed, but not me, who’s been reporting for duty every day and working in a high-risk environment?
HR: That’s correct.
Essentially, our employer was choosing to exclude us for leave reimbursement. It gets more fun. In December of 2020, 25 percent of our group contracted COVID, including my boss, who left me in charge. I had to submit a list of people to the administration who were exposed based on time spent around those who had tested positive. I called everyone in my office, compiled the list and sent it up. Administration sent it back and said it was too long and that I’d have to assess if everyone truly spent 15 minutes or more, closer than six feet, around the infected individuals, and were they wearing masks? In our open workspace environment where most of us sit closer than six feet to each other all day, it’s kind of hard to guarantee.
I asked, “Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry and quarantine everyone who could possibly be infected until they can acquire a negative test?” Nope, came the answer. In the end, the administration opted to provide admin leave, meaning it didn’t come out of the employee’s leave balances, only to those who were actually infected. If we were exposed, it was because we hadn’t followed guidelines. The rest of us opted to use our sick leave and quarantine.
We Were Classified as Essential Workers but Not Treated as Such When It Came to Vaccine Priority
We spent last Christmas at our houses, separated from our families. My team lead constructed a plastic bubble in her basement where she stayed, to protect her very medically vulnerable father-in-law, with whom she lives. One colleague watched his 2-year-old and infant daughter on the monitor like a hawk while his partner ran out to get a COVID test because he was sick and couldn’t go near them. We Zoomed with each other almost daily, checking in and keeping each others’ spirits up. We felt an utter lack of regard from our employer but did our best to care for each other. I bore the bad news that once again, we would not get our leave reimbursed for our direct exposures. “At least the county is classifying us as emergency responders,” my team lead pointed out astutely. “That means we’ll be in a high priority group for vaccines.” Ah, my sweet summer child.
We’re in a gray area as emergency responders. We are all Emergency Medical Responders (EMRs), a few classroom hours and ambulance rides short of being EMTs. We are required to carry Naloxone, first-aid/CPR supplies and AEDs. We’ve saved lives because we’ve been first on scene and got hearts beating again in people who were turning blue in cardiac arrest and stopped overdoses in progress. So when the county health department announced that it was beginning to compile lists of employees for each vaccine priority category, our collective ears perked up.
Weeks passed, and we heard nothing. Groups 1A and 1B were underway with their vaccinations. We believed, as emergency responders who weren’t full-time healthcare professionals, that we would qualify for group 1C, or group 2, at least, as continuity of government employees (remember, we were forced to work throughout the pandemic because we were essential). I asked my boss where we would be placed, and he sent my question up the chain. The response from my boss’s boss’s boss was to ask the health department, so I did. The person who responded to my email was quite kind but informed me that they did not know, and it was up to the director of each agency to determine priority groups. Would you like to guess if we were placed in a priority group? If you guessed oh hell no, you are correct!
You see, despite being essential and denied leave because we’re “first responders,” according to our employer, we’re also not first responders—we’re just regular employees, so we had to wait until vaccines became available for the general population. In fact, my director blew a gasket when he learned that I’d contacted the health department as directed by my superior and firmly told me that any further questions should go directly to him, and no, we are not first responders; why would I think that?
Most of us got our vaccines in other ways. I signed up as a first responder in my own county, brought my certifications with me and got my first shot in January. My co-worker drove 500 miles to another state where enthusiasm for vaccines was weaker and got a shot at a FEMA site that was trying desperately to find arms to put needles in. We worked through the worst of the pandemic, took care of each other the best way we could and advocated for ourselves.
My Director Is Retaliating Against Us Because We Stood Up for Ourselves
There’s no putting it behind us, though. Since we had the audacity to ask questions and push back against the blame, dangerous conditions and general disregard for our lives, our work lives have been worse than ever. Our director refuses to allow us to fill our vacant positions. He’s denied position upgrades that HR would support. He’s made sure we can’t take advantage of virtual training opportunities. Other teams are able to get any overtime they need to get their jobs done. We haven’t received overtime since February of 2021. He looks over the shoulder of our timekeeper to examine our leave requests and removed our names from a security system that we’d been using for over five years. “I’ll decide who has permissions for this program,” he said. Without access, we can’t figure out who broke into the bathrooms for the umpteenth time, the license plate of a car that did a hit-and-run or what time frame the people who keep setting off fireworks are coming in, among other issues. No one else in our whole department is trained on this system, so now, no one can access its data. It’s this kind of petty thing where the sole purpose is to deny us something that is so demoralizing.
We’re burned out. We’ve lost even more employees who said “fuck this shit” and got other jobs. We at least feel slightly validated in that it’s not just us who are quitting; our department is hemorrhaging employees left and right who are tired of dealing with various degrees of bullshit. Many quality employees were building careers, invested in our organization, but are now unwilling to put up with the toxic environment.
I’m lucky to have survived to this point. I’m grateful to have kept my job throughout the pandemic and been able to pay our bills and support my family. I’m keenly aware of how many people have it much, much worse than I. The Great Resignation is a movement for a reason. We’re collectively tired of being cogs in the capitalist wheel of perpetual grind, tired of basic things like safety, good health and living wages being privileges and tired of spending our one life working for people and places who don’t care one iota for us just so we can afford food, shelter and a bit of joy. I decided to leave in May of 2020 when I was denied any and all flexibility. Now that I’m recently vested and pension-eligible, I’m done biding my time. I’ll truly miss my colleagues and the work that I used to enjoy. I have other opportunities in front of me, and it’s not worth the drain on my mental and emotional health to stick around. So, my good people, in the words of those who have gone on before me: Fuck this shit. I’m out.