The Personal and Professional Struggles of Social Distancing
There’s always a learning curve for society to adapt to new habits, people in general and businesses in particular need time to adjust to new procedures, which is what makes it so difficult and dangerous when the new policies in question are a matter of life and death.
At time of writing, the United States alone has diagnosed over 50,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection, as well as over 600 deaths.
In order to slow the spread of the pandemic, serious measures are being put into place all over the world. Heavier hit areas as small as communities and as large as entire countries are being put under strict lockdown, while less afflicted locations are issuing “safer at home” orders, encouraging people to stay in their residences and limit their exposure to the outside as much as possible. No matter where you are and what precautions are being taken, everyone is being asked to practice “social distancing,” the act of limiting their interaction with others as much as possible, limiting congregations to no more than 10 people, and attempting to maintain a distance of six feet from one another as much as possible.
Unfortunately, that’s just not possible for most people, or most businesses, especially since they still have bills to pay.
Only businesses classified as performing “essential services” are permitted to remain operational, such as utility companies, grocery stores, and pharmacies. Restaurants and bars no longer allowing customers to eat on location, but they still accommodate take-out and delivery orders. Some electronic stores are still open for business, though entertainment venues such as theme parks and casinos are closed, as are many school districts.
Governments are working on ways to provide financial support to the people and businesses effected by all this uneasy upheaval, but until they iron out the wrinkles in their plans, workers around the world are being put in very uncomfortable positions.
Tech companies like Google and Microsoft have shifted their in-house employees to remote work status, allowing their operations to proceed while still preserving the safety of their employees. Remote work had been steadily gaining popularity over the last few years, but now the trend is proving to be essential. However, not everyone has access to reliable internet at home, or even secure space to perform their duties. Those who do not have the means to work remotely, or whose positions cannot be performed outside their place of work, must still put their lives at risk by reporting in. Some of these people may find their hours are being cut due to the sharp decline in shoppers, some others may find they’re simply being laid off instead.
Even companies that presumably could allow any or all of their employees to work from home are, in some cases, being hesitant to enact such options, and their indecisiveness comes at great risk. For example, Costco initially refused to allow corporate employees to work remotely, claiming it was out of fairness to their retail employees who were still required to work in the busy stores.
Then one of their office workers died from contracting coronavirus.
Two more office employees were diagnosed with the infection shortly afterward, so Costco quickly decided to allow their corporate employees to work remotely after all. And yet despite having a preventable death on their hands, Costco continues to insist it’s employees are classified as being “low risk” of exposure, as do many other businesses continuing to operate amid this concerning climate.
Many of the people whose duties cannot be performed remotely are considered “unskilled laborers,” yet they are quickly demonstrating how critical their positions are to the operation of everyday life. Despite this, these people are often paid the least and receive no benefits for their services. As of this writing, Minnesota has declared grocery workers as “essential tier 2 employees” alongside emergency service workers, granting them access to childcare providers since schools are closed. Vermont is looking to follow suite, but grocery chains are not necessarily doing everything they can, with Trader Joes and Walmart reportedly not providing their employees gloves or masks since the government hasn’t specifically mandated them, in some cases, even forbidding their employees from using such precautions so as not to worry customers.
These customers are indeed quite worried, as they are panic buying items like nonperishable foods, toilet paper, and disinfectant. Shelves are being stripped bare faster than they can be restocked, many stores are implementing purchasing limits on certain items to prevent early shoppers from buying them all up and depriving those who cannot get there in time, yet many shoppers still wait in long lines to get inside stores only to find that the items they were after have long since sold out. Government resources have been encouraging people to shop at off hours when there will presumably be less crowds, such as late at night or early in the morning, but many stores are in turn restricting the hours they are open to the public so they can have the time to properly restock and sanitize.
Just getting to the stores themselves is an endeavor for many people, as social distancing encourages keeping 6 feet apart from others, yet public transportation forces people into close proximity. New York has begun an initiative to clean bus and subway stations every night, as well as clean buses and subway cars every three days, but few businesses even have the means of acquiring enough cleaning products due to medial facilities being granted priority for obvious reasons. Sanitation shortages like these are raising serious concerns for shoppers and employees alike, with the elderly and immunocompromised facing particular risk. Due to these extreme conditions, many companies are offering unpaid leave for their more vulnerable employees, but this leaves those people with no income, which is especially difficult since getting a new job in this climate is almost impossible.
Despite the government’s promises that they are working on relief programs, the lack of safety nets in place here and now means some employers are having to lay off employees just so they can collect unemployment, which is a whole other hassle unto itself. Freelancers and independent contractors may now find their usual clients are no longer available for business, which is especially troubling since self-employed workers don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Indeed, there are so many who rely on gig economy business models (rideshare, Airbnb, etc.) who are now being left with no source of income or insurance to fall back on.
It is sad to see that it takes a pandemic for us to pay attention to such issues, scrambling to develop plans and procedures only after it is too late. Perhaps what is most upsetting is that we are effectively relearning the same lessons over and over again, as the world has indeed experienced similar circumstances before. We had attempted to put branches and budgets in place so we would be ready for next time, unfortunately, those in power considered these precautions superfluous when not in use, leaving us woefully unprepared when at our most vulnerable state.
If we don’t want this troubling trend to continue, we must get serious about how we handle the current crisis, and see to it that our techniques and tactics are preserved afterward. That’s not to say everyone should work from home and never return to their offices, but rather offices need to have an understanding of which positions can and cannot be performed remotely, as well as securing the proper tools and safety practices as backups so that they can be implemented immediately should the need arise. The personal danger and societal impact of bottom rung and entry level positions must be seriously reconsidered, as should as the compensation such workers are provided moving forward.
I don’t mean to be grim, but if we don’t develop a blueprint on crisis management now, then we may find ourselves with a recipe for disaster later.