Working from home is a privilege. Although it can be distracting and stressful, it is also a luxury; and, for many, it is simply not an option. Millions of Americans have no choice but to show up for work. The New York Times described these workers as “exposed, afraid, determined.” They have a job to do and, although aware and wary of the risks, are determined to do it.
Alex & Red and its sister firm The Alexander Group reached out to these front-line workers and asked them to share their stories. They are members of the clergy, flight attendants, senior center administrators and healthcare workers. They are our neighbors, friends and family members. And these are their stories.
Tina, Flight Attendant, Delta Airlines
I have worked for Delta Airlines for 29 years in June. I am based out of Salt Lake City. I have flown continuously for Delta except for a one-year leave of absence post 9/11. Right now, our flight schedules are very fluid. I am basically on call and ready to go where the airline needs me since flight cancellations and changes happen by the hour. I just returned from Austin; tomorrow, I am scheduled to head to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and then on to Bozeman, Montana and Sarasota, Florida throughout the rest of the week, but that could also change.
What is interesting to me is how people are approaching the pandemic.
One day last week, I worked a flight with 12 people; another day, I worked a flight with about 100 people on it. While it is heart-breaking to see our planes empty, I also wonder at the number of passengers taking unnecessary trips.
I would say about half of the people on my more “crowded” flight were over 70 years old. I asked a few where they were going and the answer each time was, ‘I am going to a more comfortable place to be quarantined.’ Last night, there were a group of young people on my plane. I suggested they spread out and social distance since there were many empty seats on the plane. They refused because they wanted to sit with their friends.
I do not step into the airport without gloves or a mask on. My fellow flight attendants wear masks. We change gloves several times during a flight. Interestingly, not many pilots have been wearing masks. Some feel there is no need, but as the crisis escalates, I’m seeing more and more pilots wearing masks. When I get home, I clean, disinfect, shower and repeat.
Next week, I will begin a 60-day leave of absence. I am doing this for a couple of reasons. I love my airline and want to help it survive. I’m really proud that over 9,000 of my fellow flight attendants will be joining me in this. Secondly, my husband has health issues that place him in the high-risk category; I cannot be with him while I am flying. I am going to go home and spend time with him.
Brian, Director of Community Relations for an Assisted Living Center, Southern California
I work in a 24-unit assisted living senior center catering to the LGBT community; right now, we have 21 residents between the ages of 53 to 95, with two in process of moving in. Because we are small, I wear a lot of hats. I direct the marketing, transportation, staff and scheduling, and I advocate for the residents at doctor appointments, etc. I am trying to accommodate my residents’ needs and keep our community safe. The new resident coming tomorrow has been sheltering in place as long as we have, so he is low risk.
We went on lockdown a week before the city and the state did. We have been ultra-concerned for our high-risk residents. They wouldn’t make it if they contracted COVID-19; keeping our residents safe is our biggest concern. If any of our staff gets it, we will be short-handed, and obviously it would put our residents at risk, so we are extremely cautious: No visitors or volunteers, no offsite activities for the residents. In the dining room, we split the meal service so that we have no more than 10 residents at a time in the dining room.
We wear masks to protect the residents. Staff members have their temperature taken and fill out a questionnaire before they enter the building for each shift. We sanitize our hands when we enter the community, when we enter a unit, and again when we leave a unit—all the now normal stuff. If someone comes in to deliver food or medical supplies, it’s the same routine: wear a mask, social distance, stay out of residents’ rooms.
Our biggest challenge is maintaining a sense of normalcy and socialization for our residents. Since we can’t go anywhere, I am freed up a bit to focus on creating opportunities for socialization and normalcy that they aren’t getting from visitors. We came up with game time, which typically my residents don’t really like. Playing scrabble is not their cup of tea. But now they are playing board games, and we watch movies. There are online events through the local LGBT center, but our residents are not technically savvy. I try to help them with the technology, but there is only so much time.
Truthfully, I think the hardest part of my job right now is that—this might sound silly—I can’t take my residents to the grocery store. I usually go to the grocery store once a week, and I’ll take them if they want to go. It helps them keep their identity; it’s part of their routine. They can get the little things that they count on and that bring them comfort. It’s really important to them, a moment of normalcy.
I’ve been going for them but I have 13 to 14 people who give me a list and their credit card. I go with my husband and we split it up, keep each order separate, and pay attention to limits that the stores have on certain items. Then when I get it back to the center, I sanitize everything for them. I have to do my best to protect them; it’s stressful.
I worry about someone getting sick here. That will change everything.
Meg, Department Administrator, University Hospital, Texas
I am the Department Administrator for the Obstetrics & Gynecology Department of a large teaching hospital. I’m basically the chief of staff for the support personnel teams—research, education, budget, administrative assistants—and I work closely with the department chair who is chief of the faculty (the teaching physicians, as well as medical students, residents and fellows).
Since the outbreak began, COVID-19 has become my full-time job. There is almost nothing I am doing today that I did before the crisis. One of my most important roles is to manage the flow of information throughout our department. We hold a conference call, seven days a week, with the division directors and vice chairs to discuss the changing situation—we just had our 23rd consecutive call—and it is my job to summarize and keep the entire department informed on changing guidelines, operations, policies and procedures.
As a teaching hospital, we work in a complicated ecosystem. Our faculty work in five different institutions with five unique sets of guidelines. Those guidelines change regularly as the pandemic progresses. I make sure our faculty members can walk into an institution and know what is the mask policy, what are the travel restrictions, what are the quarantine guidelines, etc.
Operations within our department have also changed dramatically since the outbreak. Our physicians are working in rotating teams that never overlap. If one team is exposed, the other team will take over office visits and labor and delivery. We have postponed all elective procedures, and we have shifted as many in-patient visits as possible to telemedicine. We had dabbled in telemedicine before; now it is becoming routine.
We have also introduced drive-through prenatal care for basic visits. Nurses are equipped with a fetal monitor attached to an iPhone, they take the patient’s blood pressure, and ask a few basic questions. The patient never leaves her car. We pilot-tested the program last week. This week, we’re continuing it on a daily basis. Everything we are doing right now is focused on treating patients faster and at lower risk. We want to minimize the time our moms are exposed.
In addition to keeping the department informed on evolving guidelines and operations, I am also managing a fleet of remote workers. Of my 70-person team, I am the only one working from the office. I check in daily with them. The challenge is to be transparent without overwhelming my staff. Our clinical staff is worried about being exposed and infected; our support staff are worried about job security. It’s my job as a leader to listen and acknowledge their fears and concerns, and model a positive morale.
I worry about job security, too. I’m privileged to be a leader in this department. I’m grateful for that opportunity. I won’t be first to be furloughed, but I also know I won’t be the last because I’m not a healthcare provider. And I worry what that would imply for my family and my kids.
I am not really worried about getting infected while I’m at the hospital. I feel more nervous and exposed when I go to grocery store. Here, I know everybody is educated and taking every single precaution. In public, everyone is interpreting the guidance given differently.
A Clergyman from the Midwest
Worshipping as a community is important. We were made to be social creatures. So, naturally, there’s disjointedness from the isolation caused by COVID-19. I am having to make the decision to not provide things to my parishioners that feed their soul in order to preserve their physical health. Baptisms have been cancelled. Weddings have been postponed. Funerals are limited to immediate family only. And now that we are in the dead of Lent, the highlight of the Christian calendar, everything just feels dark and anticlimactic.
About a month ago when this all began, our church leaders put out initiatives to all parishes to continue services but minimize contact and take precautions: no handshaking or embracing during services, hand sanitizer at the front of the church, tell parishioners to stay home if they feel ill, etc. Now, we cannot even meet at all. Our parish now “gathers” for services on Zoom and Skype. These services were meant to be experienced in person, so this all feels as if we are in some other world.
When I’m not conducting services, I try to meet with parishioners while maintaining a social distance. Hospital visitations are forbidden by healthcare workers (with good reason). But for the most part, quarantining has made my job impossible in any traditional sense.
There is no contingency plan or anything within our tradition to help me work around this. For me, it has raised the question, how do we navigate our spirituality in a modern world, particularly in the face of a pandemic? I try to reassure people with the words of J.M. Barrie, the author of the Peter Pan stories: “All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.” This isn’t the first plague humanity has dealt with, and it certainly will not be the last.
My faith teaches us that human beings are made in the likeness of the divine. I see that likeness in the way we naturally respond to injustice, tragedy and disaster. I see His image in our healthcare workers, our first responders, my parishioners who text me to ask me if I need anything, and even in my eleven-year old daughter who scolds me to wash my hands. When crisis strikes, our first reaction is to help and care for our neighbor, sometimes risking our own comfort and safety.
Whether you want to call that God, the divine, or just human nature, that’s up to you. Nevertheless, whatever it is, it gives me hope that, as a people, we can beat this.
This series will continue next week.