Companies across the nation begin to publish their annual reports. back-to-the-office plans, countless white-collar workers who’ve been doing their jobs remotely are asking, “What’s the rush? The pandemic proved that it’s possible to live in a work-from-anywhere world.”
Still, for essential workers and others who’ve been working on-site throughout the pandemic, risking their safety and well-being, it’s a gut punch to be left out of the conversation.
Paris Hoover is a worker at a Portland grocery store. She’s so fed up with hearing all about hybrid work and work-from home that she refuses to listen or watch the news. The media industry ― a group that’s widely had the luxury to work from home throughout the pandemic ― is ObsessedWith the WFH Topic.
“I have a lot of empathy, but it gets upsetting to hear about it nonstop,” she said. “I’m in my 30s and most of my friends, including my roommates at one point during COVID, have Monday-through-Friday desk jobs and they all began working from home during the pandemic.”
Hoover spent 2016-April 2021 at Whole Foods. During the pandemic, she grew frustrated by what she saw as the company’s dismissive treatment of workers as well as the store’s entitled clientele. Now she’s working for a competing local market chain.
“If every server, barista and grocery worker in the country just didn’t show up that day, the remote workers who abuse our services wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.”
The pandemic was triggered by a conversation Hoover had with Whole Foods customers early on. Asked when the store would have vitamin C back in stock, Hoover informed the customer that the store didn’t have a definite date because of ongoing supply chain issues.
Hoover recalled the woman telling her: “Well, I don’t want to come to the grocery store too often because they say that’s where you can get the virus.”
Hoover realized then how wide the gap was between remote workers and people who work in person.
“The woman had zero regard for the fact that I don’t want to come to the grocery store, either,” she said. “She might well have spat in my face and called me poor.”
Hoover hopes that her family, friends and media will acknowledge the experiences she had more than one year ago. She doesn’t begrudge remote workers the fight for the chance to work from home or in some sort of hybrid mode. She thinks workers’ needs ShouldEmployers should not prioritize employees. If they are meeting or exceeding their expectations, it is best to let them go.
However, she wonders about the past days of essential workers being heroes or central to the plot. Why aren’t heroes paid reasonable hazard pay or just a living wage? Are there benefits? What about vacation, paid time-off and fair vacation. And the possibility of getting vaccinated with no extra PTO?
“At the very least, we should get paid more,” Hoover said. “The work we do holds together our communities. If every server, barista and grocery worker in the country just didn’t show up that day, the remote workers who abuse our services wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.”
Hoover’s exhaustion from working through the pandemic, and her quiet angst over remote workers’ complaints about going back into the office, are fairly commonplace among essential workers, said Melissa RussianoA clinical social worker from Orange County, California who collaborates with many health care professionals.
“These workers are exhausted, burned out and overall frustrated with the cultural discussion of returning to ‘normal’ when their lives have not changed due to their dedication to their work,” she told HuffPost. “They feel like their willingness to continue to show up day after day has been forgotten. Their frustration with the whole discussion has increased.”
Russiano’s health care professionals are happy to have contributed in the last two years.
“At the same time, I think they truly desire to be understood when they speak about exhaustion, frustration and a questioning level of hope,” she said.
‘We’re all in this together?’ Not so much.
The reality is, while remote workers were learning how to bake sourdough bread and crochet cardigans, essential workers ― health care workers, retail workers, bus drivers, fast-food workers, custodians and so many more ― were risking their lives by working with the public or in close quarters with colleagues. Many of them had very few sick days, even if infected, and they did it every day.
Amber, a Target employee in Birmingham, Alabama, who recently left to take an office job, sides with remote workers who don’t want to return to the office. She recognizes that some jobs cannot be done remotely, like retail or some medical roles, and “that’s just how life goes.”
But “everyone got to take on new hobbies, rest, and spend time with family and friends,” she said. “Work, for me, became increasingly more difficult with constant changes and anti-maskers.”
The refrains from earlier on in the pandemic ― that “we’re all in this together” or “in the same boat” ― couldn’t be farther from the truth, said Courtney Keim, an associate professor of psychology who studies organizational wellness and psychologically healthy workplace practices at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.
“We aren’t all in the same boat,” she told HuffPost. “We are all in the same Tornado, but some of us are in yachts, some of us are in big boats and some of us are in rafts barely tied together.”
The race factor played an important role in deciding who was allowed to remain at home and who would have to leave the house and take on more risk. Hispanics and Black communities are overrepresented in essential jobs ― including jobs in warehouses ― that offer less reliable social distancing. As such, many people of color have higher rates of COVID-19 infection They are more attractive than white counterparts.
The pandemic made clear that some of us have access to the resources to get through uncharted, “trying times” and others ― largely people of color ― don’t.
“Some of us have paid leave, flexible and predictable work schedules, supportive co-workers and supervisors, family to help with child care and eldercare, reliable transportation, high-speed internet and updated computers,” Keim said. “Other people have few, if any, of those things.”
Essential workers who never stopped going into work want others to know what it’s been like.
Faheem YounusThe University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health chief of infectious disease has been working long hours taking care of COVID-19-affected patients at the front lines. After clocking those long hours, he took time to do administrative tasks and then hopped on. Twitter to provide information on the virus and vaccine to his more than 510,000 followers
When Younus hears stories about how the pandemic has affected Americans’ work lives, he wishes the experiences of essential workers were included, too.
“Many health care workers feel like forgotten soldiers on the battlefield in a foreign land,” he said. “We are deeply exhausted and frustrated that our communities have no idea what is happening within those hospital walls.”
It’s taken a huge physical and mental toll on him.
“I’ve had more health issues over the past 12 months compared to the 12 years prior to the pandemic, and I know I’m not alone,” he said.
“It’s not just health care workers,” he added. “I wish people would truly and sincerely appreciate the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, the hairdressers, car mechanics, convenience store cashiers, meat factory workers, the janitors and everyone else who had to put their lives on the line in 2020 when we had neither PPE nor a vaccine and who continue to do so in the midst of the delta variant.”
Shel, a public librarian at a busy branch library in Pennsylvania that remained open through the entire peak of the pandemic, says what bothers them most about the WFH debate is when people use blanket phrases like, “Americans are returning to work.”
Even the use of “we” is frustrating, Shel said, as if we all experienced the pandemic the same way. Shel asked for just her first name and uses the pronouns they/them.
“Like, half of us have all been working outside this whole time,” they said. “We get letters from the HR department or upper management a lot saying ‘as we all return to work’ and it’s like, ‘Speak for yourself, we’ve all been working in-person with the public this whole time.’”
Shel believed that they had been forced into the job of social workers during the worst times of the pandemic. However, this was without any training.
“Anti-maskers and COVID-truthers would come into the library without their masks on and yell at us,” Shel said. “Everyone was on edge and decided that the library was where they could vent all of their frustration with the government.”
Social separation was sometimes impossible.
“After we got plexiglass installed, which was mostly performative since people just walked around it, patrons would bang on the plexiglass with their fists because they needed more time on the public computers than we could ration given social distancing and we simply did not have enough computers to meet the demand because of funding,” they said.
Shel struggles with empathy when nonessential workers tell of their experience during the pandemic.
“I used to turn to my religion, Judaism, in times like this, but I felt alienated from my synagogue because Zoom services were regularly peppered with ‘relatable’ jokes about lockdown life, like, ‘Can you remember the last time you took a bus?’ For me, it’s like, ‘Yes, it was yesterday.’”
Every day as they went to work before the vaccine was available, Shel would wonder things like, “Is today the day I get exposed to COVID? Are my symptoms starting today? Would I die of COVID before I got to be around my loved ones again?”
Maria AndrikakiThe same feeling of terror gripped a television journalist from Greece. She had to report on the pandemic and was required to return to work. Even today, her Pandemic Experience is still something she regrets to all of the people who knew it.
“At first, we didn’t know exactly what COVID-19 was and everyone thought that they could get it by simply touching something,“ Andrikaki said. “We were working with double masks and gloves on. My shoes and clothing were left outside when I came home. I didn’t wash them until they got back to me. It happened every day. Every time I had any symptom of COVID, for instance, a sore throat, I panicked.”
She said that her friends had been talking about Netflix shows and the amount of free time they were enjoying.
“After a few weeks, they started saying how tired they were from staying inside,” she said. “I was at work all day, had just had a baby and I was putting myself in danger of contracting coronavirus, when they just had to stay home and were complaining the whole time. It’s been really irritating this whole time.”
Talking about the needs of office workers could be a good thing.All workers.
It is frustrating to not be included in stories about the effects of the pandemic on workers, but none of those we interviewed for the story were against remote workers pursuing greater control over their work.
The fact that we’re even having this conversation about the needs of workers bodes well for all employed people, said Dana Arakawa, an organizational psychologist and founder of Thrive808The firm provides consulting, training, and coaching for organizations to build resilience.
“There have been a lot of positives, including more conversation about mental health, spotlighting the invisible burden and mental load that’s often on women, and dispelling the myth that being in the office is the only way to be productive,” Arakawa said. “Managers have also been reminded how important it is to trust their employees to do their jobs.”
All employers ― whether workers are in-person, like service workers, or remote ― should value employee well-being, not just because it improves the bottom line (boosting performance and productivity and helping workers stave off long-term burnout) but because it’s the right thing to do, she said.
As Arakawa sees it, the biggest disconnect is not between the remote worker and the service worker; it’s between the service worker and the employer who hasn’t paid a living wage for far too long.
“Between that and how service workers are treated by customers, it’s no wonder that they’re leaving their jobs in such large numbers,” she said. “Perhaps the Great Resignation will also help tip the scales in favor of employees who can demand better.”
David Blustein is a Boston College professor in counseling psychology and author of “The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty: The Eroding Work Experience in America,” sees the work-from-home debate as an opportunity to “ensure that everyone who works, and who wants and needs to work, is viewed and treated with dignity.”
“For too long, treating people as if they do not exist or as commodities has been a sad and painful aspect of our society’s relationship to working people,” he said. “This could have a positive ripple effect.”
It’s not like business leaders and decision-makers need to adapt to a new workplace normal or grapple with employees’ new expectations alone; organizational psychologists have been studying for decades what reduces stress in the workplace and shores up satisfaction among employees.
“We already know what makes for a psychologically healthy workplace,” Keim said. “It’s about employees having predictability, control, autonomy, respect, feeling competent and aspiring to achieve.”
Workplace programs and policies that provide these things ― work-life flexibility, employee recognition, employee involvement, health and safety, growth and development ― can be implemented in Any organization, whether the workers are remote or at work, “essential” or not, Keim said.
“Health care or grocery workers may not be able to work from home, but they can have predictable and flexible work schedules that address work-life flexibility,” she said.
In the end, the onus isn’t on workers to yoga or meditate their way out of a stressful job or piece together child care or eldercare infrastructure, she said: “It’s on employers to create workplaces that reduce or eliminate workplace stressors in the first place and on our society to create structures that provide critical support and resources for All workers.”