Juliette Kayyem: Never go back to the office
James hasn’t asked his bosses if he can work from home, because, as a new employee, he’s worried about seeming like a squeaky wheel. But the risk of getting a disease with no cure has raised James’s anxiety levels, causing him to spend much of the day wondering whether the person across from him has the coronavirus, or whether the office’s air-conditioning is silently shooting infectious droplets his way.
Thus tensed up through the workday, he has found himself acting out of character, cracking down on his co-workers like the COVID-19 police. When he recently saw a colleague walking out of the bathroom without washing his hands, James barked at him that he was being disgusting. “That’s not something I would have done pre-pandemic,” he told me. “But I think I just kind of snapped in the moment, as I was standing there singing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
Millions of Americans who normally work in an office are still working from home, their bosses unwilling to risk infecting them for the sake of butt-in-chair time. But others are not so lucky. Some workers are being called back in, even though the coronavirus is still spreading, and even if their job can be performed from home. Those people are stuck between the danger of exposing themselves to the coronavirus and the danger of losing their job during the worst recession in living memory. Some of them seek work elsewhere when the stress becomes too much to bear.
Read: How the coronavirus could create a new working class
The uneasiness about whether it’s safe to return to work is, in part, driven by President Trump’s deferring largely to states and localities when it comes to reopening. Several states reopened too quickly, and now face rising coronavirus infections and deaths. But if a state is technically “open,” there’s little to stop a business owner from calling workers back to their cubicle.
Alison Green, the HR expert who gives advice at Ask A Manager, recently doled out tips for workers being asked to return to the office unnecessarily: “Point out that your competitors aren’t. Ask [your bosses] about how they’re planning for people who must take public transportation. Ask how they’re complying with every CDC recommendation listed here. Think about how you can generate some bad PR for them without risking your jobs.” She noted that if you are at high risk of serious complications from COVID-19, you can request remote work as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But not every situation is covered by the ADA, and not every person who is worried about getting sick is high risk.
Even workers who are at high risk have found themselves without an easy way out. Dennis Cote, a barista at the Stumptown coffee shop in Portland, Oregon’s airport, received a voicemail from his manager in early July, a transcript of which he shared with The Atlantic. In the voicemail, the manager asked whether Cote was “ready to come back to work.” She appeared to suggest that if he wasn’t, she’d note his refusal in a “log,” which Cote feared would jeopardize his unemployment benefits. Cote was worried about returning, because he’s immunocompromised. “I have a lot of anxiety and dread about it,” he told me. Still, he planned to return, “because I’d rather be making some money than no money.” (LaTrelle’s Management Corporation, which operates that Stumptown location, said in an email, “We report job offers that are made, as we are requested to do so by the state.”)