Essential Workers Get It, But They're Still Sick Of The Whining About Going Back To The Office

At the beginning of the pandemic, essential workers were lauded as heroes. Since then, they've largely been left out of conversations about working during COVID.
Essential workers say they wish more people would consider the challenges they've faced throughout the pandemic.
HRAUN via Getty Images
Essential workers say they wish more people would consider the challenges they've faced throughout the pandemic.

As companies across the country begin to release their 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.”

It’s an important, necessary debate that could benefit so many workers, in particular those with disabilities and caregivers of young children and the elderly.

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, a floater at a grocery store in Portland, Oregon, is so tired of hearing about work-from-home and the intricacies of hybrid work models, she tries not to watch or listen to the news. The media industry ― a group that’s widely had the luxury to work from home throughout the pandemic ― is obsessed with 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.”

From 2016 to April 2021, Hoover worked at a Whole Foods store. 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.”

- Paris Hoover, a store floater at a grocery store in Portland, Oregon

One conversation she had with a Whole Foods customer early in the pandemic still stings. 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.”

That was the moment Hoover realized just how deep of a chasm existed between remote workers and those clocking in 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.”

More than a year later, Hoover wishes friends, family and the media would acknowledge experiences like hers. 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 should be prioritized, and that if someone is meeting or exceeding expectations in whatever model works for them, employers should leave well enough alone.

But she also wonders what happened to the days when essential workers were cast as heroes and central in the narrative? Why aren’t heroes paid reasonable hazard pay or just a living wage? What about benefits or fair vacation and paid-time-off packages and the ability to get vaccinated without using up precious 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 Russiano, a clinical social worker in Orange County, California, who works with a lot of health care workers.

“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.”

Most of the health care providers Russiano works with are glad to have made a difference during the past 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.

Reminders that "we're all in this together" at the beginning of the pandemic came off as tone-deaf for essential workers, including grocery employees.
Juanmonino via Getty Images
Reminders that "we're all in this together" at the beginning of the pandemic came off as tone-deaf for essential workers, including grocery employees.

‘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. They did so day in and day out, most of the time, many with very few paid sick days if they were infected with the virus.

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 storm, but some of us are in yachts, some of us are in big boats and some of us are in rafts barely tied together.”

Race came into play when it came to who got to stay home and who had to work outside the home and put themselves at risk. Black and Hispanic communities are overrepresented in essential jobs ― including jobs in warehouses ― that offer less reliable social distancing. Accordingly, people of color had higher rates of COVID-19 infection than their 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 Younus, the chief of infectious diseases at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, has worked long, exhausting hours, taking care of COVID-19 patients on the front lines. (After clocking in those hours, he spent time on administrative duties and also 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.”

One doctor told HuffPost, "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.”
Xavier Lorenzo via Getty Images
One doctor told HuffPost, "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.”

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, who asked to go by just their first name, uses they/them pronouns.)

“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.’”

In the worst of pandemic times, Shel felt like they were forced to take on the role of a social worker, only without the 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 distancing was often 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.

When nonessential workers recount their pandemic experience, Shel often struggles to relate.

“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? Is today the day I start showing symptoms? Would I die of COVID before I got to be around my loved ones again?”

Workers who braved going out in public for their jobs constantly worried about contracting COVID-19, especially before vaccines were available.
blackCAT via Getty Images
Workers who braved going out in public for their jobs constantly worried about contracting COVID-19, especially before vaccines were available.

Maria Andrikaki, a TV journalist in Greece who had to go into work throughout the pandemic, felt the same sense of fear. Even now, she wishes friends who worked remotely would consider her pandemic experience.

“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. I remember returning home and leaving my shoes and clothes outside until I washed them. Every day. Every time I had any symptom of COVID, for instance, a sore throat, I panicked.”

Meanwhile, she said, all her friends were talking about new Netflix series and how much free time they had.

“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.”

Conversations about what office workers need from their workplace could have a positive effect on all workers.

As frustrating as it is to be left out of narratives about working during the pandemic, none of the people we spoke with for this story begrudge remote workers the quest for more control over how they 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 Thrive808, a firm that provides training, coaching and consulting for organizational 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, a professor of counseling psychology at Boston College and the 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.”

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