This is Sick Days, a series documenting how jobs are changing during the coronavirus pandemic, as told by workers themselves. This week, we hear from workers in city government, a car dealership, and elsewhere as they navigate financial and mental health struggles. If you’d like to submit a story, use this Google form and provide as much detail as you’re comfortable with; read this post to learn more about the project.
Gizmodo has verified the authors’ identities, and submissions have been edited for length, grammar, and clarity.
Covid-19 devoured my world starting at the end of February. There hasn’t been a single day when I’ve worked less than 12 hours trying to prepare for and respond to this emergency. Our entire community, along with the rest of the country, is catastrophically unprepared for dealing with a crisis of this magnitude.
My days are spent planning for outbreaks in the homeless population, how to keep our doctors and nurses safe, how to do outreach to homeless people safely, how to provide food for quarantined people in single-room occupancy housing. I don’t work on the front line, but my job is to think about how to keep those people safe, and the sense of responsibility for our front-line workers literally brings me to tears. They are so brave and so dedicated, and I am in awe of them. I talked to one of our outreach workers yesterday, when he was taking a lunch break after spending all morning doing outreach and infection prevention education in a homeless camp, and all he could talk about was getting back out there and the importance of being in it with our clients.
I don’t go to work with protective equipment, because I’m not on the front line and we need to prioritize masks for people with direct exposure, but there isn’t a day that I don’t think about the fact that I can’t do my job remotely and that I’m taking this risk home to my family because of where I work. Being in the middle of this once-in-a-lifetime crisis is exciting in a sick and addictive way. I do this work because I love a good crisis. I think my brain is broken, because this kind of stimulation is what I live for. But it’s also so fucking scary—it’s different than a run-of-the-mill winter shigella outbreak or managing the aftermath of a fire in an apartment building, because there’s a a real risk of bringing it home. My knuckles are peeling because I wash my hands so often and so aggressively. If I thought about it too much, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to leave the house, so I just live on adrenaline and have a few glasses of wine at the end of the day so I can fall asleep without thinking too much.
I’ve been a little bit lucky, since I was following all the news on this back in January, but the dealership itself didn’t start taking action until the end of March, and when they did it was a dramatic sweep that cut down staff everywhere.
I had a feeling that the dealership would stay open due to transportation being considered “essential,” but I didn’t know exactly how they were going to implement things. The important thing to know in all of this is exactly how everyone in the dealership makes money. A good chunk of my pay is in a commission check; we all get a percentage of what we sell in my department, but we also get a little bit of salary to keep us going bi-weekly. The technicians working only get paid when they do work, the salesmen only get paid when they sell a car, and the service writers only make money when they sell work on those cars.
The dealership can keep as many writers, technicians, and salespeople as they want... because if there is no work it doesn’t matter, they don’t have to pay them anything.
So the first big cuts were anyone that was pulling in an hourly paycheck. The porters that moved the cars around for service got cut dramatically. All of the techs that work in the Express service are young guys who get paid hourly... they’re all gone. And the parts department, because we still pulled a bit of a check bi-weekly, we got knifed as well.
We already run on a skeleton crew, just enough so we can cover each other and have some days off... Now it is just me and one other guy, the manager, and a couple stock clerks that are hourly so they only work half a day—that’s so they can deliver parts in the morning to those shops that are still open. We used to have half a dozen contract drivers to deliver parts to other shops, but all those are gone now, and now the only person delivering parts is the manager in the afternoons, leaving me and another guy to hold down the fort all day.
So now we’re pulling 10-hour days, six days a week. We manage, but with only two people trying to grab phones, pull parts, and cover all the other things we’re supposed to do there just isn’t enough to cover all of it. But hey, overtime right? Wrong. The laws in place say that if you collect a commission check, you’re exempt from overtime. It doesn’t cost them a damn thing extra to keep us there as long as they like.
The real problem is the customers, and how much isn’t being done to keep everyone safe. Gloves are in short supply, and they only just recently handed out a few masks to everyone, mandating that we wear them whenever interacting with customers. They put out a video when this started where they showed one of the service managers in a mask spraying some disinfectant fog in a car, talking about keeping people safe. The only time I’ve ever seen that used was when filming that video.
I understand “transportation” being open, in case a nurse has a dead battery, or a grocery store worker has a check engine light, or some other essential personnel need something fixed to get into work. But in reality, all of our customers are bored people who are stuck inside. I haven’t seen a single customer come in that was under 50, and never for something important to their car. They wanted touch-up paint, or some little piece of plastic for something that broke that is bothering them. These are people who are bored, or treating all of this as business as usual.
We’re not safe, and at this point it is only a matter of time before it all shuts down. The level of constant interaction you have between the techs and other staff all day, along with how cut-down our staff is, once someone finally gets it, we’re going to have to shut down. I mean, that’s if we do things right. If one of us gets it, will we all quarantine for two weeks? Or will I start getting phone calls three days in, asking how I’m feeling and when we can I get back to work?
It is just greed. We’re not open to help anyone, we’re open to milk whatever we can out of people until business goes back to “normal.” What nobody seems to understand, the definition of normal is going to be forever changed after all of this. I haven’t been able to go over and hug my grandma in over a month, and I’m worried about my parents. My wife got furloughed pretty early, but she’s yet to see a single bit of unemployment cash.
We’ll get through this, I just have no idea what is going to be waiting on the other side.
We are a critical infrastructure facility, for obvious reasons. The lights have to stay on, you know? When Mayor de Blasio announced the lockdown, I was at my local bar, the Mad Donkey in Astoria. I’m not the world’s most social person, but I know everyone there at least by sight. I looked around at everyone and knew it would be a long time before I saw them again and wanted to cry. To make things worse, I’m in a long-distance relationship, and my girlfriend was going to fly in that weekend. Nope.
So all of our plant data like pressure, temperature, flow, etc., gets monitored and tracked by computers, and I am the computer guy. I love what I do, the guys I work with and for; I am the luckiest guy in the world. And then everything got yanked out. They sent everyone home and told us to stay home. Only the people who operate the plants would come in and only they could enter the control rooms, which is where almost all my stuff is. That was the last time I have touched another person: My boss and I elbow-bumped.
That left me stuck at home with my two cats, alone. I can talk to them, but they don’t say much back. I’ve been texting and calling friends, FaceTiming Mom and Dad, Skyping my girlfriend and brother and sister-in-law, but it’s not the same as seeing someone face-to-face. I am the physically safest person at the plant because I live alone, but it’s miserable mentally. I have no appetite or sleep schedule and I know I’m suffering from depression.
Then, a call from my boss! One of our servers had failed and I’d have to come in! YES! We are still getting full pay, so I wasn’t earning anything extra, but just the chance to be productive was amazing. I was ecstatic, so I put my walking shoes and face mask on and headed in. I don’t have a car, but I live four miles away, so it’s no biggie. I walk home every so often to check out the scenery anyway. But here’s the rub: The route to get to work is on one of the busier roads in Queens, so I was playing hide-and-seek where every time someone approached, I would stand in between parked cars to let them pass.
I got in and that was when I had my first face-to-face conversation with another person in a month. It was so beautiful. I want more of that. I mentioned my mental state and asked if I could do the end-of-month water consumption report, which my partner always does, just to get in and see the guys and shoot the breeze a bit, and he agreed. SCORE!
The next day, the plant manager called to check in on me. He’s a couple levels above me, so I almost never deal with him, and he was so understanding and nice, and I gained a lot of respect for him.
My super has died and his wife is in the hospital. This is a guy who knows my cats. The owner of my other other local bar, Sunswick, in Astoria, is in the ICU. My friend [redacted] lost her uncle and then her mom. Her grandma, sister and sister’s daughter lived with her, so they’ve been exposed. Statistics are one thing, but these are people I know. This thing is personal.
Our supervisors were very, very reluctant for some reason to allow us to work from home despite wanting us to not come into the office unless needed. Surprisingly, it was suggested to us that we could work in a library or coffee shop. I still don’t understand the reasoning behind that call.
It was not until the city government declared shelter-in-place, forcing libraries, coffee shops and other nonessential businesses to be closed, that they relented and allowed us to work from home. We do have to report to work once a week still, to turn in work and pick up more work. We tried to go paperless but were unable to get all the systems in place. I really wish we pushed harder with that because in a time like this, doing everything online would be great.
Working from home has its challenges. A lot more distractions at first, though I now find myself completing the same level of work that I do in the office. I will say though, that anyone out there who feel that they are not as productive at home to not be too hard on themselves. This is not work-from-home in a normal time. This virus situation is stressful for everyone, and trying to focus on work is hard. My concerns now are making sure I don’t get the virus while out grocery shopping or getting gas, and keep from having a mental breakdown. I find myself fraying at the edges a bit and I am afraid the longer this goes, the more anxiety and stress I will have.
Being Asian American brings another thing to worry about, having read articles about attacks on Asians. So far I have yet to encounter any problems, but I worry about it every time I go out to the supermarket. I would like to think that maybe, just maybe, the residents of this town realize that Asian Americans have been here for a long time, well before any of this crap happened, and thus placing blame is ridiculous. That’s wishful thinking on my part though, but I guess that’s one way to cope in this crazy time.
In the immediate future, as far as my job goes, I think our department will not make any changes until the budget hearings later this year when they see how much of a shortfall they have. That is when I feel the pay cuts, demotions and/or layoffs will occur. I worry about it because I am still relatively new and any layoffs will start with recent hires. I am not sure if the layoffs are by department or within divisions. Within my specific division I am fourth in line. If it’s the entire department, I’m 11th. I can deal with a pay cut or a demotion for a time, but a layoff will hurt. For now though I have a few more months of regular pay, so I will take those months of pay to save up just in case there are layoffs.