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Sick Days: Stories From People Keeping the World Running

Illustration for article titled Sick Days: Stories From People Keeping the World Running
Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)
Sick DaysSick DaysWelcome to Sick Days, a collection of stories from readers on how the current covid-19 health crisis is changing the way they work and the futures they can expect in these uncertain times.

This is the first edition of Sick Days, a new series documenting how jobs are changing during the coronavirus pandemic, as told by workers themselves. This week, we hear from a healthcare worker, a small-business owner, an airline worker, and more. If you’d like to submit a story, use this Google form, and read this post to learn more about the project. Submissions have been edited for length, grammar, and clarity, and Gizmodo has verified the authors’ identities and workplaces.

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Anonymous, hospital phlebotomist, Michigan

I draw blood and also work in the lab as the point of contact for nurses, mid-level providers, and doctors. I receive all specimens when working in the lab. If you have a specimen collected while I’m on shift, it’s guaranteed to cross my gloved hands.

When this whole thing began, I will admit we all took it very lightly. In the lab we joked about a “corona bell” that we’d ring when we got a “rona specimen.” Fast forward a few weeks and we’ve gone from an average, happy workplace, to an undeniable feeling of wrongness. We all feel somewhat guilty about being at work. Many of us are parents with young children, elderly, asthmatics (like myself), or so young that death seemed like something far off. We come to work and dread the next eight hours. We feel like we shouldn’t be here. But there’s a lot behind that feeling.

When the first case came to our hospital last week, I was the first to receive a specimen from a PUI (patient under investigation) for covid-19. The tell-tale double-bagged viral transport tube came from the ER. In about an hour we learned that the patient was negative for the flu and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus]. With this crisis underway, that meant that in all likelihood they were positive for covid-19. We would call a STAT [rush] courier to take the specimen away. Fortunately, our small hospital does not do testing on this virus, nor will we until the distant future.

The supply shortage became abundantly clear that same night when a nurse called the lab trying to figure out why her sample’s testing had been canceled. I looked into it and the test was canceled automatically. Our laboratory system would no longer perform testing for Respiratory Virus Panel by PCR [multiplex polymerase chain reaction]. All reagents for that test would be diverted to testing for the coronavirus. I had the unfortunate task of telling her that her patient was now a PUI for covid-19. For the next few days over the weekend, that would be my only contact with the virus. Then the emails began to really pick up. Information was coming day by day, sometimes changing hour to hour. We were now instructed to reuse our otherwise “single use” N95 respirators for an entire shift. Our regular face masks would be good for one hour.

On Monday 3/16, I was scheduled to draw blood on the floor. I wasn’t super nervous before I got to work but when I pulled up and saw nurses—gloved, gowned, masked, and goggled—screening the few visitors who were allowed inside. My stomach sank a little. Almost as soon as my shift began, the chaos reigned. I was sent to the ER where of course there was a screaming baby and around me my colleagues were masked. You could feel the fear in the air. My next patient was a STAT on the third floor. He’s a PUI for covid-19.

The door in the hallway actually leads to a small chamber separating his room from the hallway. I sign the log on the door—a record of everyone coming in and out, when, and why, so if he does come up positive we can all be hopefully alerted and tested. As I’m getting ready, a woman from epidemiology asks if I’d help her out. This is the weird part. She asks me to get two answers from this patient: 1. What is the name of the night club you were in? 2. What county do you live in? I agree to ask him the questions. I gown up, double up on gloves, N95 respirator, plastic face shield. Time to go in. This guy did NOT look good. A man in his early 60s. His breathing is labored. Through my mask I tell him my name and why I’m in his room. He doesn’t really speak but I get to work. The sooner I’m out of there the better. I ask him the questions. It takes a minute but I get some clear answers out of him.

After drawing blood, and de-gowning in the chamber, I remove my gloves and wash my hands. I remove my face shield with some care and place it in a new paper bag. I then have to touch this disgusting face mask. I remove it touching it only by the elastic and carefully bag it in a separate bag. I deliver the answers to the epidemiology lady and move on to my next patient. I get in the elevator and as the doors are closing, I hear a code called. The room? Oh just our PUI friend I had just left. Fortunately I had all the blood they’d need for testing so I didn’t have to go back in.

As we were waiting outside, another alert sounded. A Rapid Response (similar to a code) in the critical care step down unit (CCSU). Myself, a respiratory therapist, and one of the doctors hurried on to the Rapid. I never found out why the patient coded but she ended up being OK. While waiting for the docs to figure out what testing they needed some nurses and I were joking that we were all standing too close to one another. Two of them and myself formed a sort of triangle with our elbows touching. Suddenly the two nurses started praying and sort of in shock I backed away. I literally just watched and slowly bowed my head trying not to cry. It really set in how this whole thing is going to get much, much worse before it gets any better.

Later that day, the first patient that coded is in the ICU, intubated, and restrained so that he doesn’t self-extubate. I once again go through the dance of putting on PPE and then carefully removing and storing what PPE must be reused. I’ll do this dance several times today with all of the other PUIs.

At the end of the night, I’m more tired than I have ever been at this job. I can’t wait to shower.

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Jason, homeless shelter worker, California

We run a small team that interacts daily with homeless clientele. We are also a piece of the now only operating homeless shelter in the area. Our facility can house up to 160 men, women, and children, as well as a recuperative care program for homeless individuals recently discharged from local hospitals in a 24-hour facility that serves three meals a day, provides laundry, shower, and (by appointment) medical services. We have had three confirmed cases in our county, and so far none have been from our shelter, however the influx of new clients (as other warming centers have closed due to the virus) is getting dangerously close to overrunning the staff and resources available.

The agency response from my employer has been slow and inefficient at best. We are currently still at full staffing (although many of our jobs could be done remotely) and are told that if we’re uncomfortable coming in to the office that we can use sick/personal/vacation leave. We have been given two bottles of Lysol spray, and have ordered more hand sanitizer, although we don’t have a date on when it will arrive. A basic screening for temperature and symptoms are being conducted before people are allowed in to the shelter, but that is done in a long single-file line near the front doors. Our agency also runs several early childhood development and HeadStart programs in the area, all of which have been suspended since late last week.

The other divisions of our company are all still expected to be at work, with the only hope of future guidance coming from an executive board meeting on Thursday. I should point out that our veterans program is the highest-paid program at [redacted], but the average shelter worker makes between $14-$17 an hour, irregardless of which shift they work.

After our initial correspondence, Jason added:

Just to update you, our county just declared a shelter-in-place order. We are being told by management that homeless services (even though we are not direct shelter staff) are exempt from this order and to await further decisions from senior management. Myself and several of my coworkers are on the verge of quitting, as we were told “once the shelter in place order comes we’ll be working from home” yesterday only to have that taken away pending a board meeting tomorrow night.

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Anonymous, Raytheon employee, Mississippi

Execs and salary people are working from home, but hourly workers are here. Eating closely in the cafeteria, meeting in small spaces. The company says don’t do these things but managers are still putting profit over safety. We’ve been forbidden from bringing sanitizers and other cleaning supplies from home. Meeting rooms have wipes, and hand sanitizer is put out. All our internal media repeats the “customers continue to expect us to meet our goals” and I haven’t seen a single person social distance. As it stands we must take five days of PTO before using disability. Everything here points to us being expendable.

In the event of site closures, workers who could not telecommute would relocate to other sites. They want us putting our daily-wear smocks in bags as if that would keep the virus from spreading on the coat racks.

No one is social distancing. I’m afraid with all the travel workers there do that I’ll be infected by the lax standards. That I’ll bring it home to my immunosuppressed husband.

Production at the plant has been hit hard as well. Since January not only have fabricated parts been slow to come in, but raw materials as well are in short supply. With the global production chain of the product I find it hard to believe the outbreak did not have an effect.

My other concern is if this pandemic causes some type of military conflict, the pressure on the company to continue production would outweigh any quarantine measures.

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Matthew Telles, Instacart shopper, Illinois

Our current situation is absolutely awful and uncertain. My heart is breaking and alternately swelling in intervals as new information comes in. It truly is a strange time to be alive.

The virus’s effects on my sector of the gig economy (grocery delivery for Instacart and Dumpling/MyGig), have been widely televised, and being in the front lines has been a very humbling experience.

I’m a news junkie, so my significant other and I have been following this thing since the beginning. Being van-dwellers, or “houseless,” we quickly realized we were in a unique position to have the best chance to thrive in a pandemic. Not so much thrive, but be helpful.

We start in our van in a what used to be 24-hour Walmart parking lot. They have since reduced their hours. We now sit in a lonely parking lot with a few other van people scattered about. It’s safe here. There are cameras. And it’s in a connected lot to where my girlfriend works at Aldi.

We have access to supplies but are not hoarding. We have honestly been preparing for a recession for a few months now. Day trading a bit throughout the years as Instacart continued to steal tips and cut rates.

We have solar power and running water and sanitation in our delivery van, as well as refrigeration. We had been building the inside to be a comfortable RV type setting where we could work in our online businesses and travel this spring and summer, but our only building space is at my 81-year-old grandmother’s house. We recently talked from across the yard. I’ll be bringing her groceries and supplies when needed in the coming weeks.

I’ve also seen my community decimated by layoffs. My own mother, a longtime waitress, was laid off for at least two weeks, as the governor closed all of the service industry. She has two roommates who are seemingly uncareful and I don’t really trust them to take the proper precautions to take this seriously and keep my mother alive. I hope we are blowing this out of proportion. So it’s stressful in that sense. She isn’t very healthy.

Other than that, I’m very unhappy that Instacart is making cash hand over fist yet seemingly paying shoppers less and less and not taking serious action to protect us and reward us for putting ourselves in danger. There are still a whole lot of people out there not taking this seriously. I am forced to buy my own supplies as far as masks and gloves and sanitation products. I’m also seeing some weird looks and retaliation for potentially taking masks and gear away from hospitals which is not the case, I am simply protecting my potentially immunocompromised clients. So it’s been pretty stressful.

Currently, we’re taking the day off to design a marketing strategy for my immediate neighborhood that allows me to get supplies to their door safely, and at a much more reasonable cost than the guys can provide in Silicon Valley. I believe now is the time for communities to come together, but no closer than six feet, hell preferably from their homes through technology, to take care of each other. To protect and serve the most vulnerable of us. To do what we gig workers have been screaming about for at least half a decade.

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Anonymous, local tourism company owner

My business is dead. The last three weeks of March, cancellations are at around 90%+. April is gone. They are saying this will take months before things start to get back to normal. That means May doesn’t even exist, June either. We are running what’s left of the tours from people that didn’t cancel. 90%+ of my business is from coastal liberals (I say that lovingly) in NYC, Boston, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Seattle who only do our civil rights tour. And due to all the businesses (city facilities, tourist sites, sit-down restaurants) closing down here, the only tour I can run safely run at this point is a civil rights tour.

My options are DoorDash, Uber Eats, or Amazon. Companies that treat their employees like shit. So I guess I’m shit now. I’m not doing the delivery route, mostly because my car is actually one of the business vehicles, and quite old, and my wife’s car is 21 years old. We’re frugal already, which helps tremendously, but anything I might make, I’ll lose on repairs over time.

The worst part about this is that my father quit his job to come work for me full time. Six months ago, he gave up a salary with healthcare to come work for me. Now I’m letting him go. I have no choice. I can’t afford to pay either one of us. If my wife didn’t have a real job, I would be toast. My father is still screwed though, thanks to me.

I don’t have any immediate plans other than finding a job. Of course, the jobs I have started to apply to are disappearing as industries close up that are somewhat related to the industry I now find myself in. I reached out to all the businesses I work with on my tours and they are all letting everyone go so they don’t even have jobs for their own employees, much less for me or my father. I’ll probably end back up in finance, but the kind of work I have always been in, where I have to tell people I am in finance but then explain to them it’s the finance where you don’t make any money. So I’ll either start another business in a few years or will have drank myself to death by then (half-joke).

Tl:dr, don’t hire family, never hire your parents, don’t start a small business, don’t try, give up now, everything is fucked.

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Anonymous, American Airlines worker at LAX, Los Angeles

We have canceled all international flights until October 23 this year including places such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Sydney, Auckland, Brazil, South Korea, London, Argentina. They started sending some of us home with no pay. Now there are talks that all domestic travel will be suspended, inevitably sending everyone home with no pay.

In an average eight-hour shift we have to come in contact with roughly 3,000 people from all over the world. We weren’t offered testing. We are the third-busiest airport in the world. I guarantee that many of my coworkers have contracted the virus but just don’t know it yet.

LAX has installed about 200 hand sanitizers throughout the airport and employees are now required to wear latex gloves at all times. When people think of hot spots where they can get infected they mainly think about public restaurants and grocery stores. Not enough attention is being paid to us that work at the airport who have to come in direct contact with thousands of people a day. You can say we are on the front lines with every passenger we have to check in. Cancelling all international travel is necessary to help contain this virus but a lot of us are out of work.

If they do decide to suspend all domestic travel I don’t know what I’m going to do to pay my bills.

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Senior reporter. Tech + labor /// bgmwrites@gmail.com Keybase: keybase.io/bryangm Securedrop: http://gmg7jl25ony5g7ws.onion/

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DISCUSSION

unofficialdruid
UnofficialDruid

If this becomes the new normal for the next 12-18 months, as I’ve heard, we honestly do not know what the world will look like at the other end of this pandemic. Economies will change drastically, with unforseen winners and losers. International political alignments will change as much. Empires will collapse and be forged in this climate.

If everything is over in a fortnight, it'll be a blip. If it lasts months or years, it could be as big or bigger than WWII.