They went to work every day.
While the American employees mostly worked in the cocoons of their homes, these workers went to work elsewhere. Most of them had no choice.
For many workers across the country, this summer’s surge in the Delta variant undid long-awaited plans to return to the office in the fall. But millions more – including nurses, cashiers, restaurant and grocery workers, delivery drivers, factory workers, janitors, and housekeepers – have never worked from home.
“They are the people who often work in public and often work in jobs that require a particular risk for the virus,” said Eliza Forsythe, an economist at the University of Illinois. “All of those kinds of jobs that aren’t done in front of a computer – that’s really the backbone of the rest of the economy being distracted from afar.”
More than a year and a half after the pandemic disrupted almost all aspects of daily life, one of the largest economic divisions has been between workers who can work from home and those who cannot.
We asked six employees who have never worked remotely about their experiences and they shared their stories below.
Only 35 percent of Americans – fewer than 50 million out of 137 million people – were working from home in May 2020 due to the pandemic when remote working peaked, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those unable to work from home were employed in a variety of industries including healthcare, agriculture, recreation and hospitality, retail, transportation, construction, and manufacturing. Many were seen as part of the frontline and indispensable workers army, with jobs considered so critical that they could not be put on hold even during a public health crisis. As a rule, they were low-wage earners, less educated and disproportionately colored.
At a time when millions of Americans were losing their jobs, some of these workers – those who worked during the pandemic or were only unable to work in the early days of the virus – could be considered relatively happy.
At the same time, many of these never-deposed workers could not afford other work or lack the necessary skills despite fear of contagion. And a large proportion also completely lost their jobs, in part because they were unable to work remotely when their stores were temporarily or permanently closed during the pandemic. Many of these workers were employed in the service sector.
Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has shed more light on how stressful and ungrateful many of these never-remote jobs are – a parallel work universe where millions of employees have not had the luxury of even thinking about returning to the office.
(The interviews with the workers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Anjannette Reyes, 54, Orlando, Florida.
Wheelchair users at the airport
So many didn’t come back to work. People are afraid to work at the airport. We push more than one wheelchair at the same time because we have no manpower. On international flights we sometimes have 17 wheelchairs and only two of us. We’ll get her through security and run to get the others. People miss flights. People cry. We keep apologizing.
I was recently injured from pushing too many wheelchairs. My whole arm felt like pins and needles. The doctor said I had a tear. I was free for two weeks. I wasn’t paid for that.
I make $ 7.58 an hour plus tip. You don’t get sick pay. You don’t get vacation pay. There is no retirement benefit. There are other people who are injured and still push chairs. There are people with back ulcers and shoulder pain. Colleagues get sick. I tell them, “Go home.” But they don’t. You rely on the tips to survive.
Even though I’m going through this, I don’t feel safe getting another job out there. If there is another outbreak, we will feel safer at the airport. This is the only place that went on because they had to move people – sick people, doctors, lawyers. We had to keep the airport open.
Avelina Mendes, 63, Brockton, Massachusetts.
At first I didn’t know how serious the virus was. I mean, I protected myself, but I didn’t pay that much attention until my sister got Covid. It was December 27th.
She had the symptoms. She is 75. She decided to go to the emergency room so she took a shower and then suddenly she collapsed. She hurt her back. Since then she has been paralyzed.
She is now in a nursing home. I always saw her from the window and we talked on the phone. She would tell me what she wants and I would bring it with me. She likes to eat Cape Verdean food.
Every time I think about it, I cry. Then I wipe off my tears, put on my mask and go to work.
I stamp in. I put all the rubbish outside. After disinfecting the bathroom, I vacuum the lobby. As long as there aren’t that many cases on campus, I feel pretty good about it.
But when it goes up, fear comes. I panic. I am losing sleep. When I think of my sister, it could be me. I’m out and about all the time, doing the work.
Kim Ducote, 42, St. George, Utah
Restaurant server and case manager for homeless shelters
I was unemployed from March 15 to August 2020 with $ 200 left in my bank account. And some friends of mine opened a restaurant and offered me a place to serve. I was the only server. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, that was a godsend.’ For example, I had no idea what to do. I only have $ 200 left in my bank, no options. I didn’t really want to go back to the service industry, but that was the only chance I had.
I went back and things began to look up and go well. And I started making money again and people loved this food and we made a name for ourselves really quickly. And in October all three of us got Covid so we had to close because I think it was a little over six weeks.
The male and female cooking team – they got Covid really bad. Her symptoms were pretty severe. And for me, I only had a terrible headache for about three days, a very light cough, and a lot of exhaustion, and then I got back on my feet immediately. And they weren’t sure how long it would take to open them again.
During that time I decided, ‘Well, I can’t be unemployed again indefinitely. I have to look for something else. ‘ So I applied to a local homeless shelter and got a job there.
Juan Sanchez Bernal, 62, Harrison, New Jersey
When the pandemic started, the number of people we saw in the offices almost halved. It created panic. Many of us would have liked to work from home, but unfortunately, because we people clean, how can we?
A member of our group fell ill and died. I felt sad. We were a team, you see? We talked about baseball, basketball, the countries we came from.
This is the country that chose us. If, in a moment of crisis, we have to choose between what we like and what we don’t, what contribution do we make? We all did the necessary work – we all contributed our grain of sand.
We haven’t stopped working. I arrive at 6 a.m. We take out the trash. We always disinfect. We always use masks.
My youngest daughter studied from home because her university was closed. You watched over me. When I got back from work she was all over me: Did you wash your hands? Undress yourself! Shower now! My other daughter called all the time.
I told them, ‘Remember, everyone who is born has to die, so calm down.’ They laughed. If you are more stressed, you will die faster. So you better laugh.
I don’t want people to be treated like me and feel this loneliness and fear that I felt.
I started working in a large pet store at the end of September last year. I made $ 10.50 an hour. For the first five months of my job, I was just a cashier. One day a tall, bulky man leaned over my plexiglass shield and deliberately coughed. I think we ran out of dog food he needed or anything.
My brother died on May 22nd. He was my little buddy. His aortic rupture and infection spread throughout his body, and he suffered a stroke that shattered his brain stem. He couldn’t go on, so we decided it would be best if we did life support for him. My supervisor was neither empathetic nor empathetic. She even told me to just get over the fact that my feelings at home don’t carry over to work. It was traumatic. I no longer felt comfortable working in this shop. I switched in mid-June.
My new shop has few staff. We’re all being wrung dry. You’re going to be trying to unload inventory from a trucking shipment and then someone will need fish or four different phone calls. Sometimes someone forgets to give the birds more millet.
I worry that the weather will get cold again, that cases will increase, and that my family and colleagues will be safe. I’ve already had a defeat this year.
April Fitch, 58, Newark, NJ
Security service at the airport
More people would have preferred to stay at home or work from home. If I had that opportunity, I definitely would.
I caught Covid at the end of March. I was not feeling well. My mother was in a nursing home. I called her on April 6th and told her it was my birthday soon. I told her, “I’m coming to get you out of the house.” She laughed. On April 8th, the nursing home called me and told me that she was being taken to the hospital. She died of Covid a week later.
I ended up using two weeks vacation, all of my sick days and they gave me my three days for bereavement. I didn’t have time to grapple with the fact that I lost my mother while dealing with Covid myself.
The first day of going back to work was scary. I am still scared. It is very crowded now. I try to stay two meters apart. When someone asks me a question, I try to keep them at bay.
Aidan Gardiner contributed to coverage of the worker interviews. Eduardo Varas translated Juan Sanchez’s interview from Spanish.