They were never able to work from home. These are their stories.

Day after day, they set to work. While American white-collar workers largely worked in the cocoons of their homes, these workers left t...


Day after day, they set to work.

While American white-collar workers largely worked in the cocoons of their homes, these workers left to seek jobs elsewhere. Most had no choice.

For many workers across the country, the rise of the Delta variant this summer has shaken long-awaited plans to return to the office this fall. But millions more – including nurses, cashiers, restaurant and grocery store workers, delivery drivers, factory workers, janitors and housekeepers – have never worked from home. in the first place.

“These are people who often work with the public, often in jobs that require them to be particularly exposed to the virus,” said Eliza Forsythe, an economist at the University of Illinois. “All of those types of jobs where you’re not sitting in front of a computer – that’s what has really been the backbone of getting the rest of the economy away.”

More than a year and a half after the pandemic disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life, one of the sharpest economic divisions to emerge has been between workers who can work from home and those who cannot. .

We interviewed six workers who have never been to remote about their experiences and they shared their stories below.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 35% of Americans – less than 50 million out of 137 million people – worked from home at some point in May 2020 due to the pandemic, when remote working was at its peak.

Those who could not work from home worked in a wide range of industries, including healthcare, agriculture, recreation and hospitality, retail, transportation, construction, and manufacturing. Many were seen as part of the army of frontline and essential workers, with jobs considered so critical they could not be suspended even during a public health crisis. They were generally lower paid, less educated and disproportionately colored people.

At a time when millions of Americans have lost their jobs, some of those workers – those who worked throughout the pandemic or who were only able to work at the start of the virus – could be considered relatively lucky. .

At the same time, many of these workers who have never been removed could not afford, or lack the necessary skills, to find other jobs despite the fear of contagion. And a large portion also lost their jobs entirely, in part because they were unable to work remotely when their businesses closed temporarily or permanently during the pandemic. Many of these workers were employed in the service sector.

Perhaps more importantly, the pandemic has shed light on how exhausting and thankless many of these never-distant jobs are – a parallel world of work in which millions of employees haven’t had the luxury of thinking about returning. at the office at all.

(Interviews with workers have been edited for length and clarity.)


Wheelchair attendant at the airport

So many people have not returned to work. People are afraid to work at the airport. We are pushing more than one wheelchair at the same time because we have no manpower. Sometimes for international flights we have 17 wheelchairs and only two of us. We take them to safety and run to look for the others. People are missing flights. People cry. We constantly apologize.

I was recently injured pushing too many wheelchairs. My whole arm was like needles and blows. The doctor said I had a tear. I was on leave for two weeks. I wasn’t paid for it.

I earn $ 7.58 an hour plus tips. You do not receive sickness benefit. You do not receive vacation pay. There is no retreat. There are other people who are injured and are still pushing chairs. There are people who have back ulcers and shoulder pain. Colleagues fall ill. I tell them, “Go home. But they don’t. They rely on tips to survive.

Even though I’m going through this, I don’t feel secure about finding another job there. If there is another escape, we will feel safer at the airport. It was the only place that continued because they needed to move people – people who were sick, doctors, lawyers. We had to keep the airport open.


Guardian of the college

At first I didn’t realize how bad the virus was. I mean, I protected myself, but I didn’t pay much attention to it until my sister caught Covid. It was December 27.

She had the symptoms. She is 75 years old. She decided to go to the ER so she took a shower and then all of a sudden she collapsed. She hurt her back. She has been paralyzed since.

She is now in a retirement home. I would go to see her through the window and we would talk on the phone. She would tell me what she wants and I will bring it. She likes to eat Cape Verdean food.

Every time I think about it, I cry. Then I wipe away my tears, put on my mask and get to work.

I point. I put all the garbage outside. After disinfecting the bathroom, I vacuum the hall. As long as there aren’t many cases on campus, I feel pretty good.

But if he goes up, that’s when the fear comes. I panic. I am losing sleep. When I think of my sister, it could be me. I am outside all the time doing work.


Restaurant waiter and homeless shelter case manager

I was unemployed from March 15 to August 2020 and had $ 200 left in my bank account. And a few friends of mine opened a restaurant and offered me a job there. I was the only waiter. And I thought ‘Oh my god, that was a godsend.’ Like, I had no idea what I was going to do. I only have $ 200 left in my bank, no options. I didn’t really want to go back to the service industry but it was the only opportunity that presented itself.

I went back and things started to improve and go well. And I started making money again and people loved this food and we made a name for ourselves very quickly. And in October, the three of us caught Covid, so we had to shut down for, I think, just over six weeks.

Husband and wife chef team – they really had Covid. Their symptoms were quite severe. And for me, I just had a terrible headache, a very slight cough and severe exhaustion for about three days, and then I bounced back right away. And they didn’t know how long it would take them to reopen.

So during that time I decided, ‘Well, I can’t be unemployed for an indefinite period anymore. I have to look for something else. So I applied to a local homeless shelter and got a job there.


Commuter train keeper

When the pandemic started, the number of people we saw in offices almost dropped by half. This created panic. Many of us would have liked to work from home, but unfortunately because we clean people how can we do it?

An employee of our group fell ill and died. I felt sad. We were a team, you know? We talked about baseball, basketball, the countries we come from.

It is the country that chose us. If in a time of crisis we have to choose between the things we like and the things we don’t like, what contribution are we making? We have all done the essential work required – we have all contributed our grain of sand.

We have not stopped working. I arrive at 6 am. We take out the trash. We always disinfect. We still use masks.

My youngest daughter studied at home because her university was closed. She was watching over me. When I got home from work, it was all over me: did you wash your hands? Take off your clothes! Take a shower right away! My other daughter was calling all the time.

I would say to them, ‘Remember that everyone who is born has to die, so calm down.’ They laugh. If you are more stressed, you will die faster. So you better laugh.


I don’t want people to be treated the same as me and to feel this loneliness and fear that I felt.

I started working in a large pet store at the end of September last year. I made $ 10.50 an hour. For the first five months of my job, I was just a cashier. One day a tall, bulky man leaned around my plexiglass shield and deliberately coughed. I think we ran out of dog food he needed or something.

My brother passed away on May 22. He was my boyfriend. He had a stroke that crushed his brain stem. He couldn’t continue, so we decided it would be best to remove him from life support. My manager was neither empathetic nor compassionate. She even told me to get over it, that my feelings from home did not transfer to work. It was traumatic. I was no longer comfortable working in this store. I was transferred in mid-June.

My new store is understaffed. We are all wrung out. You will try to unload the inventory of a truckload of trucks, then someone will need fish or four different phone calls. Sometimes someone forgets to give the birds more millet.

I worry that the weather will turn cold again, if cases will increase and if my family and colleagues will be safe. I have already suffered a loss this year.


Security guard at the airport

More people would have preferred to stay home or work from home. If I had had this opportunity, I definitely would have.

I caught the Covid at the end of March. I did not feel well. My mother was in a retirement home. I called her on April 6th and told her my birthday was soon. I told him, “I’m coming to get you out of the house.” She laughed. On April 8, the nursing home called me and told me that she had been taken to the hospital. A week later, she passed away from Covid.

I ended up using two weeks of vacation days, all of my sick days and they gave me my three days of mourning. I didn’t even have time to deal with the fact that I lost my mother while facing Covid on my own.

The first day back to work was scary. I’m still scared. There are a lot of people now. I try to stay six feet apart. If someone asks me a question, I try to keep them at bay.


Aidan Gardiner contributed coverage of the interviews with the workers. Eduardo Varas translated the interview with Juan Sanchez from Spanish.

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