'The Human Brain Is Just Not Meant to Process This Much Extreme Change'

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Illustration: Angelica Alzona

Welcome to Sick Days, a series documenting how jobs are changing during the coronavirus pandemic, as told by workers themselves. This week, we hear from an Amazon worker in one of the company’s many delivery stations, an out-of-work Waymo operator, a psychotherapist who has moved to telemedicine, and more.


If you’d like to submit a story, use this Google form and provide as much detail as you’re able; 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.

Anonymous, district attorney prosecutor, mid-Atlantic region

I am a prosecutor in a sizable district attorney’s office. My colleagues and I have spent the last three weeks watching our criminal justice system slowly crash and burn. Once covid-19 started spreading, our DA started reaching out to other judicial, criminal, and government bodies asking how we would address the virus if it spread stateside. Most of them thought he was panicky and brushed off his concerns.

Every day the DA and other leading members of our office would brief us on what they were doing and how to proceed forward. They told us they were in constant communication with our judges, commissioners, etc. They had proposed a series of plans to continue criminal proceedings that would assist in flattening the curve. They were repeatedly told that the plans were being taken under advisement. In all reality, everyone (except our office) was treating covid-19 as something that wouldn’t happen.

Then the president addressed the country and indicated covid-19 was a real thing. The mayor where our courthouse was located declared a state of emergency. Jurors stopped showing up for trials. Witnesses were freaked out. Our office started rescheduling trials as quickly as we could because we were concerned we wouldn’t have sufficient jurors to proceed forward. Some defense attorneys (mainly private counsel from out-of-county) simply told us they weren’t coming due to health concerns.

Then Monday hit.

Suddenly jurors for all trials, civil and criminal, were cancelled. The county prison was put on lockdown; visitations were canceled, defense attorneys had a difficult time getting in to see their clients, and the warden indicated that anyone who was on work release would be furloughed until further notice. The probation department said they would no longer be doing home visits. We watched as various county agencies shuttered their doors one by one.

As prosecutors, we are essential government employees. We still rely on a physical file system, so while some of our duties can be accomplished from home, our support staff needs to come into the office. Furthermore, there needs to be a representative of our office for any ongoing criminal proceedings. Our DA said that we could stay home if we desired (we have a lot of immunocompromised folks and folks with kids who are out of school for the foreseeable future), but otherwise we need to be there and keep our communities safe. Based on CDC recommendations, all employees were split between two shifts to lessen our numbers. That means the early shift starts at 7 a.m. and the late shift ends at 11 p.m. We’ve all adapted readily to that, but we’ve run into bigger issues.

Our office has tried to give priority to any proceeding involving an incarcerated defendant (their liberty and speedy trial rights are most at issue). Originally the judges seemed on board with that. We created a plan to have all incarcerated defendants participate via video call for essential proceedings (e.g., preliminary hearings, bail hearings, restraining order violations, motions to suppress, bench trials, etc.). There were strict guidelines that only 12 people could be in a courtroom at a time. The problem is that judges treat their courtrooms like their personal fiefdoms and do whatever the hell they want. Some judges continued to transport prisoners and people in the courtrooms were packed in like sardines. With other judges we would go over every scheduled proceeding with chambers, indicate the important ones (say, I don’t know, sentencings in homicides) only to learn they were rescheduled the next day. Some judges actually stuck with the plan.

Then our state’s Supreme Court declares a judicial emergency and closed all judicial buildings to the public. They suspended the statutory equivalent of speedy trial until April 3. They gave a VERY abbreviated list of essential hearings, which included bail/temporary restraining orders/warrants/Gagnon I hearings and not much else. Today we learned that all proceedings for the next two weeks, regardless of what it was or if the defendant was incarcerated, were rescheduled until after April 14. The judges are now going to be on a rotating schedule (which we don’t have). There’s been no clear line of communication — we have to piece everything together from different agencies.

These criminal hearings won’t disappear. They will be rescheduled months down the line. I’ve received scheduling orders for late June. So not only are defendant’s having proceedings delayed for an indefinite period of time, but we are setting ourselves up for a massive glut whenever restrictions are lifted.

In the meantime, we need to explain to our witnesses and victims what is happening and why we can’t push forward. The average violent crime case lasts between 12 to 18 months before a resolution, and all that time victims cannot move on or heal. It’s horribly traumatic, and now we need to keep them on board for even longer.

Our office is doing everything we can to ensure that incarcerated defendants are given priority. We are still preparing for trial. As of right now, we only have one courtroom open per day with limited proceedings for incarcerated defendants (all of which are appearing via video from the prisons). We are also very careful with who we request to be held during bail hearings. We are cognizant that every body we add to the prison system could pose a health threat to other prisoners and staff, but we have to balance that with the danger they may pose to society.

I have the privilege of being young, healthy, and having a salaried job; I’m not afraid of covid-19. I am deathly afraid of the collateral consequences of social distancing and how many people will die as a result. My colleagues and I are currently trying to figure out how to flatten *that* curve with the resources we have left.

The biggest issue is that we don’t know when we will be able to resume at the same case volume we once operated. Originally we thought it would be May, but as the infection rate climbs and we listen to what health experts project, it may not be until mid-summer. In spite of all of that, we are still doing everything we can while the courts are shut. As dramatic as it sounds, our office is part of a thin line holding back a constitutional crisis.

Anonymous, contractor vehicle operator with Waymo

The first policy change was sterilizing the vehicles each day and including disinfecting wipes in the vehicles. Because we did not accept many riders for trips it did not change much last week. This week the change was to not accept ride requests entirely. Along with this policy change we were assigned single-driver missions instead of having two drivers in a car per shift. These changes did not affect what I would do over the course of a shift as most of our time is spent collecting data and monitoring how the vehicle behaves in a variety of situations. This all changed yesterday as an email was sent out mentioning that all activity will be paused until April 7 and further communication will be coming if that changes. I thought that our operation would be one of the few that could continue to function in the midst of the current situation.

Generating revenue for the project was not a top priority for Waymo as was stated during training which is why stopping our mission feels so out of place. On average I would have under five riders per week. Before we stopped driving the vehicles around I could do two to three days in between ride requests. So there wasn’t much change in our daily routine at work. This would be the ideal time to do more testing rather that halting it. With a reduction in traffic more data could be collected and incorporated into future revisions of the software that the cars use to operate.

I do understand the need to keep us safe and Waymo does a great job of doing so but I feel that we could have continued our work in wake of the pandemic. With the daily sanitizing of the cars, laptops, and break areas in the depot it was evident that it was being taken seriously. I would have preferred having an option to either do vehicle checks in the depot or potentially map out new areas to expand into later. Something to feel like I am not just sitting at home waiting for a status update. I really do like what I am responsible for during my shift.

Without updates from Waymo as to when we can resume work I am feeling stressed about what will happen after the next two weeks. No guarantee of being paid and having to apply for unemployment is constantly in the back of mind. I have already been through a month of unemployment prior to beginning work for Waymo that I do not want to repeat. This also applies to my concerns for my opportunities to apply for other positions at Waymo. After working at multitude of other companies where the potential to advance felt like a gamble where I am now feels like I do have that chance.

Elementary school principal, 37, New Hampshire

Because we live in such a high-poverty area, one of the first concerns we had was about getting the breakfast and lunch to our students. Frankly, that was more important than work.

We did create remote learning, with the first 10 days being a districtwide initiative instead of each teacher having to create their own classroom worth of work. They began creating videos so that would be able to update the website over the course of 30 school days in case it went that long.

In the meantime, the assistant principal and I have been waking up at 5 o’clock every day to board a bus with a few volunteers. I am the only one allowed to step off the bus and hand food and materials to the families. There’s a lot of crying on the bus.


Anonymous, Amazon delivery center worker, Texas

Just recently, they started a staggered clock-in procedure by your last name in 15-minute intervals. Now we are bunched up in 15-minute intervals. We are not spread out the 6ft recommend distance but that really doesn’t matter because we still clock in and go to our crowded lanes.

[Redacted] is a sortation center which means we build pallets according to zip codes. Those pallets are only 18" apart and there are approximately 90 pallets per lane. Currently we have 4 lanes A-D. The other two lanes are under construction—they are going automated. Those lanes were temporarily added to the already crowded lanes. Lanes are so crowded that we are constantly coming in close contact to other associates. I recently watched a news report stating that the coronavirus can last up to 24 hours on cardboard. Amazon has failed to mention this to us.

They started staggering break times by last names, putting one person per table but they are not disinfecting tables after every use. Last night there were no paper towels in the men’s restrooms so it kinda defeats the purpose of social distance.

They recently offered an incentive to all hourly employees: double [overtime] pay to employees who work over 40 hours. The problem with this is that we are part-time employees. We all are scheduled in four-hour shifts. Most employees already have full-time jobs and moonlight at Amazon. Reaching that 40 hours is impossible.

I haven’t heard of anyone testing positive at our site, but it’s inevitable. Just a matter of time.


Anonymous psychotherapist, Los Angeles

I have moved all my clients and sessions to a HIPAA-compliant video service, which means that I get a glimpse of client’s living rooms, home offices and bedrooms, as they see mine. It’s been interesting to both disclose and receive so much additional information about people by just seeing their home spaces.

I’m wildly grateful that I’m able to work from home and to continue earning income, and it feels like an incredible responsibility at this time. Ushering people through their fears and unanswerable questions, providing guidance and support while experiencing the same stressors is definitely exhausting. Because we have switched to video sessions, we can’t not acknowledge the current events.

I work with a lot of survivors of trauma and the anxiety and PTSD flare ups that people are experiencing right now are significant. I find myself asking clients to identify what makes them safe in this very moment—their home, their pets, food in their fridges, gas in their vehicles. Beyond the “here and now,” there’s not much we have access to at this moment.

Almost all of my clients have asked me how I’m doing, which is very sweet, stating that they can’t imagine what it’s like to be a therapist right now. I haven’t quite figured out what my answer is to this question—I mostly say I’m getting the support I need and thank you for asking, but it doesn’t feel like the whole story. The human brain is just not meant to process this much extreme change in this short amount of time. I find myself tiring more easily, feeling sluggish and heavy on the days that I’m working.

I’ve been actively communicating with other therapist friends, checking in on them, seeing how they’re handling all these changes. An additional wrench in this is that I am immunocompromised (multiple autoimmune diseases), so I am a “specialized population” and caught a cold a few weeks ago, so I’ve been self quarantining for almost a month now. Walking my dog, working in the garden, smoking weed, and doing home projects are what I’ve been doing with my time off. I’ve been trying to consume as little news as possible (I check headlines two times a day) and have asked my partner for “quiet times” as to get a break from processing this ordeal. I’m also craving nature—I’m tending to my houseplants, hiking outside when it’s not raining—and have really been feeling a biophilic urge these past few weeks.


Anonymous, nuclear power plant operations

I work in operations for a nuclear power station (not so much Homer Simpson; more like Lenny or Karl) and we are currently refueling one of our reactors. This happens every couple of years and also allows us to complete maintenance that could only happen with the reactor shutdown. This means we have almost doubled our workforce with people from all over the U.S. These contractors only get paid if they work that day so the incentive to show up no matter what exists.

It’s a refueling outage, planned years in advance and completely independent of the covid-19 pandemic. There are a few levels of “shutdown” that mean different levels of shutdownedness (most definitely not a word). All nuclear plants (in the US) are required to have at least X amount of Y people on site at all times to maintain “safe shutdown” capability (basically bring the nuclear reactions to a stop and prevent a meltdown). These being incredibly complex arrangement of systems, it takes more than a natural gas or coal plant. In normal circumstances, it can take a day or so to get everything cooled down.

Rumors here spread worse than a room of teenage girls. We may or may not be sequestered to maintain minimum staffing to ensure we can safely shut down (if need be). Company management has already been behind the curve in screening visitors. Only last week did they forbid visitors that weren’t pre-approved.

I imagine our workforce mirrors that of the U.S. as a whole. We have an aging workforce, many with decades of experience and expertise in operating this plant. Additionally, like the average American, we do have other health issues that put us in higher risk categories (smoking, obesity, hypertension, etc). I’m concerned that, along with other businesses, our company doesn’t know what *exactly* to do.

We have procedures and robust, in-depth back up systems for every situation short of gravity suddenly ceasing to exist. However, the preliminary plan to maintain adequate staffing has us asking more questions than it answered. This including shortening quarantine for asymptomatic workers who are positive for covid-19 and sequestration of able-bodied workers. We just want answers so that we can have plans in place for our lives before the situation gets all Walking Dead on us.

To their credit, we are now facing screening before being allowed on site. Anyone who can work from home is being set up to do so. Unfortunately, a lot of our work is hands-on or deals with proprietary/sensitive information not allowed off-site. I am not too concerned for myself, I’m in relatively good health and if I have to be sequestered to keep my family and community safe, so be it. With a majority of former military members in this field, I am not alone in this sentiment. I have complete confidence that should we not be able to maintain control and adequate staffing for the reactors, our operators will shut them down regardless of what anyone in our corporate office says. We know our plant and will not risk the health and safety of our families living in the area. That said, if we take our units offline, it’s approximately 15 percent of our state’s electricity that will need to be replaced somehow or people will lose power.



Babylon System

I would like to thank my neighborhood UPS driver.

The guy is out there right now delivering packages (again) like nothing has changed. He still hugs the boxes. :0

I do wish he would wear gloves and a mask for his own safety.