They went to work day in and day out.
While white-collar America largely worked from the cocoons of their homes, these workers left for work elsewhere. Most had no choice.
For many workers across the country, the surge in the Delta variant this summer has negated long-awaited plans to return to the office this fall. But millions of others—including nurses, cashiers, restaurant and grocery workers, delivery drivers, factory workers, janitors, and housekeepers—never worked from home in the first place.
“These are the people who often work around the public, often in jobs that put them at particular risk from the virus,” said Eliza Forsythe, an economist at the University of Illinois. “All these kinds of jobs where you’re not sitting in front of a computer — that’s really been the backbone of letting the rest of the economy go remote.”
More than a year and a half after the pandemic disrupted nearly all aspects of everyday life, one of the biggest economic divides that has emerged was between workers who can work from home and those who cannot.
We asked six employees who never work remotely about their experiences and they shared their stories below.
Only 35 percent of Americans — less than 50 million of the 137 million people — were working from home at some point in May 2020 because of the pandemic, when remote work was at its peak, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those unable to work from home were employed in a wide variety of industries, including healthcare, agriculture, leisure and hospitality, retail, transportation, construction and manufacturing. Many were considered part of the army of frontline and essential workers, with jobs deemed so critical that they could not be suspended even during a public health crisis. They were usually lower wages, less educated and disproportionately colored people.
At a time when millions of Americans lost their jobs, some of these workers — those who worked during the pandemic or were just unable to work in the early days of the virus — could be considered relatively happy.
At the same time, despite fears of contamination, many of these never-remote workers could not afford or lack the necessary skills to find other work. And a large proportion also lost their jobs completely, in part because they were unable to work remotely when their businesses were temporarily or permanently closed during the pandemic. Many of these workers had jobs in the service industry.
Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has shed more light on how grueling and thankless many of these never-distance jobs are — a parallel universe of work in which millions of workers haven’t had the luxury of thinking about returning to the office.
(The interviews with the workers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Anjannette Reyes, 54, Orlando, Florida.
Wheelchair attendant airport
So many stopped working. People are afraid to work at the airport. We push more than one wheelchair at a time because we have no manpower. Sometimes for international flights we have 17 wheelchairs and only two of us. We take them through security and run to get the others. People miss flights. People cry. We constantly apologize.
I was recently injured from pushing too many wheelchairs. My whole arm felt like needles and pounding. The doctor said I had a tear. I was off for two weeks. I wasn’t paid for that.
I make $7.58 an hour plus tips. You don’t get sick pay. You don’t get holiday pay. There is no pension. There are other people who are injured and are still pushing chairs. There are people with back ulcers and shoulder pain. Colleagues get sick. I tell them, “Go home.” But they don’t. They rely on the tips to survive.
Even though I’m going through this, I don’t feel safe getting another job. If there’s another outbreak, we’ll feel safer at the airport. This is the only place that went on because they had to move people – sick people, doctors, lawyers. We had to keep the airport open.
Avelina Mendes, 63, Brockton, Massachusetts.
At first I didn’t know how serious the virus was. I mean, I protected myself, but I didn’t pay much attention to it until my sister got Covid. It was Dec 27.
She had the symptoms. She’s 75. She decided to go to the emergency room, so she took a shower and then suddenly she collapsed. She hurt her back. She has been paralyzed ever since.
She is now in a nursing home. I always went to her from the window and we talked on the phone. She would tell me what she wants and I would bring it. She likes to eat Cape Verdean food.
Every time I think about it, I cry. Then I wipe my tears, put on my mask and get to work.
I clock in. I take out all the trash. After disinfecting the bathroom, I vacuum the lobby. As long as there aren’t that many things on campus, I have a good feeling about it.
But when it goes up, comes the fear. I panic. I’m losing sleep. When I think of my sister, it could be me. I’m out all the time, doing the work.
Kim Ducote, 42, St. George, Utah
Restaurant server and case manager homeless shelter
I was unemployed from March 15 to August 2020 and I still had $200 in my bank account. And some friends of mine opened a restaurant and offered me a job there. I was the only waiter. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this was a godsend.’ For example, I had no idea what I was going to do. I still have $200 in my bank, no options. I didn’t really want to go back into the service industry, but this was the only opportunity that presented itself.
I went back, and things started to seem together and going well. And I started making money again and people loved this food and we built a name for ourselves very quickly. And in October all three of us got Covid so we had to close because I think it was just over six weeks.
The husband-and-wife chief team – they got Covid really bad. Their symptoms were quite severe. And for me I just had a terrible headache, a very mild cough and severe exhaustion for about three days, and then I bounced right back. And they didn’t know how long it would be before they reopen.
So at that time I decided, ‘Well, I can’t be unemployed indefinitely again. I have to look for something else.’ So I applied to a local homeless shelter and got a job there.
Juan Sanchez Bernal, 62, Harrison, New Jersey
Custodian of the commute
When the pandemic started, the number of people we saw in the offices almost halved. It caused panic. Many of us would have loved to work from home, but alas, since we are cleaning people, how can we?
An employee of our group became ill and died. I felt sad. We were a team, you know? We talked about baseball, basketball, about the countries we came from.
This is the country that chose us. If, in a crisis situation, we have to choose between the things we like and the things we don’t like, what is the contribution we make? We have all done the necessary work – we have all contributed our grain of sand.
We didn’t stop working. I arrive at 6 in the morning. We take out the waste. We are always disinfecting. We always use masks.
My youngest daughter was studying at home because her university was closed. She watched over me. When I got back from work, she was all over me: did you wash your hands? Take your clothes off! Take a shower now! My other daughter called all the time.
I would say to them, ‘Remember that everyone who is born must die, so calm down.’ They laughed. The more stressed you are, the faster you will die. So you better laugh.
I don’t want people to be treated the same way I am and feel that loneliness and fear that I felt.
At the end of September last year I started working at a large pet store. I was making $10.50 an hour. For the first five months of my job, I was just a cashier. One day, a tall, stout man leaned around my Plexiglas shield and coughed deliberately. I guess we ran out of dog food he needed or something.
My brother passed away on May 22. He was my little buddy. He had a stroke that shattered his brain stem. He couldn’t continue, so we decided it would be best if we took him off the ventilator. My manager was not empathetic or compassionate. She even told me to just get over it, that my feelings of home didn’t carry over to my work. It was traumatic. I didn’t feel comfortable in that store anymore. I switched in mid-June.
My new store is tight. We are all wrung out. You’re trying to unload inventory from a truck shipment and then there’s someone who needs fish or four different phone calls. Sometimes someone forgets to give the birds more millet.
I worry that the weather will get colder, that the number of cases will increase, and that my family and colleagues will be safe. I have already suffered one loss this year.
April Fitch, 58, Newark, New Jersey
Airport security guard
More people would rather stay at home or work from home. If I had had that chance, I certainly would have.
I got infected with Covid at the end of March. I did not feel well. My mother was in a nursing home. I called her on April 6 and told her it was my birthday soon. I said to her, “I’m coming to get you out of the house.” She laughed. On April 8, the nursing home called me and told me she had been taken to the hospital. She died of Covid a week later.
I ended up using two weeks of vacation time, all my sick days, and they gave me my three days for bereavement. There was no time to even deal with the fact that I lost my mother while dealing with Covid myself.
The first day I went back to work was scary. I’m still scared. It’s very busy now. I try to stay six feet apart. If someone asks me a question, I try to keep them at a distance.
Aidan Gardiner contributed to the reporting on the interviews with the employees. Eduardo Varas translated Juan Sanchez’s interview from Spanish.