Here’s What Essential Workers Want People Who Work From Home to Understand
I asked essential workers to share what they’re going through
A nurse in the trauma surgery ICU at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, on November 26, 2020. Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images
Earlier this week, I asked essential workers who follow me on Instagram to share anything they wished us work-from-homers would understand or recognize about the situation they’re in. I have just under 5,000 Instagram followers, and this question inspired dozens of responses, representing a diverse spread of professions. I heard from baristas and nannies, cooks and dishwashers, EMTs and primary school teachers. Each response offered a bracing account of worker exploitation, exhaustion, and trauma set against a backdrop of customer entitlement. As I read through them, I knew I had to write a piece highlighting the many important messages these workers had to share.
There are so many people working tirelessly right now in incredibly dangerous settings, making it possible for the rest of us to keep our homes well-stocked with essential goods, electronics, clothing, and food. While many toil away in relative safety (and, yes, isolation and boredom), this underpaid class of people are facing short-staffed work shifts, grouchy customers who refuse to mask up, demanding managers who are at their wits’ end and taking it out on those below them and, of course, the pervasive dread that comes from near-constant exposure to the coronavirus.
Here are just some of the messages I received from essential workers, grouped loosely into overarching themes. These responses also offer insights into steps that you can take, as a work-from-homer, to lighten the load of the essential workers around you.
Sick employees are being forced to work
When we are sick, we are pressured to still come in and work because we are so behind.
If you have gone into a store, ordered takeout, or visited a gym or salon anytime in the past month, there’s a good chance you were served by someone sick with the coronavirus. I heard from many, many people that employers simply are not taking quarantine policies (or the health of their staff) seriously. And because so many workplaces are short-staffed (due to employees getting sick with Covid-19), many workers are expected to come in no matter what, even if they aren’t feeling well.
I spoke with a health care worker who is employed by one of the largest hospital networks in the Midwest. She told me her hospital’s official policy is that if an employee tests positive for the coronavirus but is not showing any symptoms, they are expected to still come into work. When I shared this fact with a few other people who work in health care, they confirmed for me this is a pretty standard policy at the moment. The logic being, apparently, that if you are asymptomatic, at least you won’t be sneezing and coughing Covid-19 particles into the air.
Many workplaces also lack contact tracing protocols and don’t alert employees when one of their co-workers comes down with the virus. “They still don’t have to tell you if you were in contact with someone who tested positive at work. No tracing,” one health care worker messaged me.
Essential workers also have to cope with the uncertainty of working alongside people whose personal safety protocols might look very different from their own. “You don’t know what goes on after you clock out. Who’s being safe, who’s not,” a food service worker from the Midwest told me.
Hygiene and safety protocols are a shallow performance
Even with ~new company policies~ about masks and whatnot, it’s often not adhered to or enforced.
Numerous essential workers shared that the hygiene and safety protocols on display at their workplaces were mostly performative and not rigidly adhered to. Hygiene theater is abundant; it’s easy to make a big show of sterilizing surfaces often despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that surface transmission of Covid-19 is not a genuine concern. This oversterilization takes a toll on employees’ health: “The daily sanitizing agent exposure makes my essential worker housemate come home feeling ill.”
The heavy-duty disinfectants now being dispensed on an hourly basis at many stores and restaurants were never designed for such frequent use. Overuse of these chemicals dries out people’s skin and can cause respiratory problems and headaches. They exacerbate sensory issues and allergies and do damage to the environment. They can also lead to the proliferation of anti-bacterial-resistant superbugs. Essential workers bear the brunt of this, all so that we work-from-homers can feel comfortable using the self-checkout at Target.
A lot of essential workers also told me their workplaces’ masking and social distancing measures were being ignored. Customers frequently “forget” to bring masks with them to stores, for example, or refuse to wear them properly. Here are just some of the many things essential workers shared about customers refusing to mask up:
Please assume a mask is required when you go out. We run out of extras.
Being an entitled white man is not a medical exemption. Put on a fucking mask or go home.
Complaining that you’re sick of wearing a mask for small talk is annoying.
Unfortunately, the oblivious entitlement of customers doesn’t end there. It turns out lots of us work-from-homers are leeching a great deal of attention and emotional labor from the essential workers who watch our children, make our coffee, and cook our meals.
Customers are demanding a ton of emotional labor
An anonymous response that reads, “People are complaining about our tone more than ever to managers because [we are] projecting due to masks.”
Essential workers told me over and over again that customers and clients are being pushy and demanding to a degree they have never seen before. Tips have dropped off, complaints from customers are skyrocketing, and everyone seems to be cranky and seeking validation from the service staff. One retail worker explained that due to obligatory mask-wearing and plexiglass barriers, they have to project their voice in order to be heard by customers. Some customers interpret this as “yelling,” though, and complain to management about employees using an inappropriate “tone.”
I received many stories of bored work-from-homers coming into stores and restaurants seeking social stimulation and absolutely terrorizing the essential workers around them. Here’s how one person put it:
Work-from-home people seem to be conversation starved, so they want to talk more than normal. But I’m not your friend… I get paid to sell you things. Plus sometimes there are people waiting to come into the store while you jabber away (we have a small store with a two-customer limit).
Again and again, retail workers told me they wished work-from-homers would recognize the incredible stress they are under and learn to shop efficiently without making oversized social demands:
Saying you are just browsing is a slap in the face. Get what you need and go.
People forget that what is their one outing for the day is my workplace. Get in, follow every rule, be polite, and get out. I’m not here to service your ego. I’m here to do work.
Small businesses aren’t necessarily more humane
Reading through these responses, you might be tempted to think they all come from workers of evil corporate behemoths like Walmart and McDonald’s. Surely the scrappy small businesses you’ve been supporting don’t mistreat their workers in these ways — right? Well, not so fast.
A response that reads, “Your support of small businesses does not equate to support for your friends who work there.”
Since March, there’s been a major public push to support small businesses, which have been financially devastated by lockdown and demand shock. “Support small businesses!” has become a rallying cry, buying local an act of consumer “activism” that is assumed on its face to be a net good. But that financial support doesn’t always trickle down to the employees who make local businesses run. As one responder put it, “A lot of essential workers hate their jobs. Even the ones who work at your fave small business.”
Several essential workers told me that while their small business employers initially treated them well during the early days of lockdown, the benefits and paid quarantining periods have long since run out. One woman told me in the spring that she received an extra $2 per hour as “hazard pay,” but months ago, her wages returned to normal and stayed there even though the “hazard” of catching Covid-19 cases is far worse now than it was then.
A coffee shop manager told me that though her employer had offered a pretty generous paid leave to all employees earlier into the pandemic, all stores are now open, and she has no choice but to come into work every day. She can’t quit because then she wouldn’t qualify for unemployment. All she can do is submit to the risk of contracting Covid-19 every day and hope that the governor eventually closes businesses back down.
The trauma is inescapable
Far and away the most common response I received from essential workers is that they are living with a degree of dread and fear that we work-from-homers cannot even begin to understand.
Everyone is dissociating. We all feel like it’s only a matter of time until we’re sick. It’s exhausting.
Many essential workers told me that for them, it’s not a question of if they will get Covid, but when and how will they continue to make a living or care for their loved ones when that time comes. Some have had to stop caring for ill or aging relatives because of the risk of virus exposure they face every day. “When I serve tables I’m afraid to go home and care for my immunocompromised mom,” one restaurant worker wrote.
So many people shared with me the unspeakable emotional and existential burden of having to work for a minimum wage pittance, knowing it might be the thing that kills their vulnerable family members or themselves.
I also feel guilty for having a job and like it’ll be my fault for going to work if I get sick.
How sad it is that my life and the lives of my family members are only worth the minimum wage I earn.
Essential workers have a higher “risk tolerance” out of necessity
Finally, many essential workers told me that since they are forced to confront a heightened risk of catching Covid-19 at their jobs, they tend to have greater “risk tolerance” when they’re off the clock as well. This may mean they socialize more than work-from-homers, particularly with their co-workers. After all, they’ve already been forced into a massive “pod” with their co-workers, so why not at least experience the relief and connection of grabbing a drink with them after their shift?
However sensible this approach is, essential workers frequently get shamed for it. Many told me they’d been chewed out by friends and loved ones for not social distancing rigorously enough, even though their jobs, of course, have made this impossible.
“People expect us to go into these wildly unsafe environments to have our labor sucked out of us and not have higher decompression needs,” one kitchen staff worker wrote.
Many essential jobs are not only perilous on paper, but they’re also psychologically overwhelming. Frontline workers end up desperately craving time among their peers and loved ones in order to process all that stress. Numerous people told me they’ve had to hide this fact from others, for fear of being “canceled.” Here’s what a friend who works in food service had to say:
Someone I was close with told me they were going to “unfollow me for a bit” because they saw my post about taking a [solo] car trip out of state… but I am out at work every day handling people’s spit in the second most dangerous city in the U.S.
Another friend, who works as an EMT, told me he was criticized as “irresponsible” for driving a co-worker home from their job. “But we’d just been working the back of an ambulance together for hours,” he told me. It made no sense for people to expect him to socially isolate from his co-worker in arbitrary ways when the nature of their work made true distancing impossible.
The double-standards on display here are striking and distressing. In reality, Covid-19 cases are on the rise because so many people are required to go in to work, not because they’re also choosing to socialize in order to cope with that work. We work-from-homers may feel we have sacrificed a lot this year by withdrawing from the public world and connecting with others almost exclusively via Zoom. In reality, we’re very lucky to even have the option to isolate. The people who keep us fed and clothed and healthy are living don’t have that choice. They live in a state of risk resignation, assuming (quite rationally) that for them, catching Covid-19 is pretty much inevitable.
A response that reads, “It feels like we live in a different reality than work from home folks.”
The pandemic has laid bare the fact there are two Americas, one for the comfortable and well-compensated and another for the exploited and marginalized, who carry the rest of us on their backs. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a terrifying tragedy for everyone, and staying at home isn’t easy, but the toll of social distancing pales in comparison to the anxiety, danger, and doom of having to work among the public day in and day out.
If you’ve been working from home all this time, I hope you have taken these stories to heart. There are many important lessons we can take from them, about how each of us can make essential workers’ lives a little bit more bearable. Here are the things essential workers would like you to do:
- “Be kind and patient.”
- “Wear a mask. Follow stores’ safety protocols religiously.”
- “Tip generously. Like 40–50%, if you can afford it.”
- “Don’t go to stores just because you’re bored and want to browse.”
- “Shop efficiently; don’t waste employees’ time.”
- “Don’t expect retail workers to give you the royal treatment or to want to socialize with you.”
- “Don’t shame essential workers for taking more ‘risks’ than you.”
- “Be grateful for everything essential workers have done to make your cushy work-from-home life possible.”
- “Fight for your state or city to lock down so essential workers can be paid to stay home.”
- “Call your political representatives and demand they pass another Covid relief bill.”
You can read all the responses I received from essential workers in the Instagram story highlight here. Any essential workers who are reading this, please feel free to share your own insights and experiences with us in the comments.