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The Normalization of "Working Through Covid"
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Over the last six months — and more specifically, the last two — millions of people whose jobs had allowed them to work from home have tested positive for Covid. I’ve come to think of it as a sort of Privileged WFH Blue State Wave: as even the most Covid-conservative of offices began opening up, and mask mandates in blue states like Washington faded away, I began hearing from family after family who’d avoided the disease for two years, only to have it come home this Spring.
And yes, people who haven’t had the ability to be as cautious about the virus — because of their job, or the politics of their state, or the rules in their children’s schools — are also getting Covid, often for the second or third time. This is not great for any number of reasons, and we don’t yet know the long-term ramifications of multiple infections, and like a lot of people, I find the leadership vacuum in this stage of the pandemic somewhat terrifying.
But I want to focus, at least for the duration of this piece, on the reactions to contracting the virus within this very loosely defined WFH wave. Because this is a group that has the most privilege in terms of the ability to take paid time off to truly recover from it — and, in many cases, the least willingness to do so.
Perhaps this scenario is familiar. You work in a job that transitioned to fully remote at the onset of the pandemic. You’re early or mid-career, established enough that you’re not terrified for your job every day, but still trying to underline that you’re exceptional and on the path towards….something. Your company has fairly generous vacation and sick leave, but you’re also somewhat understaffed — hiring has been difficult in this economy, as the refrain seems to go — and has struggled to backfill for parental leave or even just when someone leaves. Your job, like everyone else’s job at the organization, has expanded.
Before the pandemic, people would maybe take a sick day if they were really sick — like, came down with Norvovirus sick — but sometimes people would come into the office with nasty colds, or if they did stay home, they’d be furiously emailing all day, trying to prove they were still working. And for that first, heady, claustrophobic year of the pandemic, people just seemed like they were working all the time. No one was sick because no one was going anywhere; even people with kids weren’t getting as sick, because the kids were home or masking, too.
A few people in your organization cohabited with people who were essential workers, and maybe a handful got it, and maybe some were still struggling with the lingering effects of long Covid, but you didn’t really know about it, because other people’s health isn’t your business (and so many people are terrified of disability, so they just….don’t talk about it).
And so now, as you or someone close to you in your organization tests positive, there’s a weird, unspoken understanding that you should probably just keep working. Maybe not work as hard as you would on a normal day, but definitely keep up with emails and maybe attend a few meetings and just kind of have Slack open on your phone in case something comes up — ambient working, low-energy working, but nonetheless working. People will log on averring “oh I just have a mild case,” but the understanding of “mild” has expanded to include any case that doesn’t require hospitalization.
In situations like these, there’s no manager that’s forcing the employee to keep working. In fact, their manager has probably said something along the lines of “take some time if you need it” — an invitation for the worker to prove that they do not, in fact, need it, or any sort of allowance, because they are so exceptional that they will work through anything, including Covid. Or they feel that their workload is so precariously balanced — and the organizational itself so stretched — that if they do stop working, they will return to a cascading disaster.
At this point, I want to underline that I’m not talking about people who don’t have sick leave. I’m not talking about people who are freelancers and also don’t have paid sick leave. I’m not talking about members of what theorist Guy Standing calls the precariat, whose entire livelihood will be threatened if they do not try to work through Covid. I’m talking about people who have internalized a personal or structural work ethic that whispers to them — before and after a positive Covid test — that rest is weakness, and the ability to power through sickness is a sign of personal grit and resilience.
And I get it, boy do I get it. We have worked through so much these last two years — intermittent or nonexistent childcare, abject terror, a contested election, an attempted coup, ongoing climate catastrophes that have made it dangerous to go outside, ongoing and targeted racial violence — that somehow working through fatigue, or brain fog, or what might initially feel like a mildly elevated cold feels….normal? Like the right thing to do? And that taking time off when so many others don’t have the ability to do so is somehow insulting? And I mean what else are you going to do?
But I am here to say — to myself as much as any of you faced with this decision — that this is line of thinking is morally bankrupt. It has productivity culture brainworms. It is evidence of the most toxic scarcity mindset, and one of the most pernicious side-effects of the spread of “flexible” work. And if you’re reading these sentences and immediately coming up with justifications for why you worked or would work through Covid, it’s worth thinking about why.
And if you do fall in this particular WFH category, here are some straightforward reminders of why you shouldn’t work through even a mild case:
Exerting yourself during an active infection can lead to/extend Long Covid — which means no longer actually having the choice about whether or not you’d like to “work through” your symptoms. Americans are extremely bad at weighing long term consequences alongside short term ones, and are also very good at conceiving of ourselves as the exception, but there’s no muscling through Covid. Trying to do so doesn’t make you a stronger person or a better worker; it just makes it more likely that you will find yourself unable to work, well, at all — or certainly not at the levels to which you are accustomed.
If you’re a manager or a leader, you are setting the standard for how the people who report to you should “ideally” deal with their own cases, regardless of severity. No matter how much you message otherwise, what matters is what you do, not what you say.
If you’re not a manager or leader, you are still setting the standard for your coworkers on how an “ideal” employee deals with a positive case. Taking paid time off is an act of solidarity — a way to underline that a Covid diagnosis is a time to make use of your privilege (a privilege that should be universal!) to rest when your body demands it, instead of implicitly compete with your coworkers.
Paid Time Off shouldn’t be a benefit. It is a right. But the less people treat it as a right, the more it is conceived of as a benefit. That’s how we’ve found ourselves in our current situation in the United States. No individual can change the way an entire organization or industry conceives of its workers’ rights. You need a union, or, at the very least, actual solidarity to do that. But you can refuse to be the scab that employers hold us as evidence that employees don’t ever “need” time off, whether for sickness or urgent caregiving responsibilities or just plain rest.
If you have kids — they’re internalizing this attitude towards work, whether you want them to do or not. This applies to your posture towards work generally, but the way you deal with Covid is like a parable for your entire relationship to work.
You might be saying: It’s just a few days or weeks of your life! It doesn’t really matter. But like all decisions related to Covid: it really does. If you’re in a position of power in the workplace, even if you yourself have not had Covid, you can still mandate actual rest — the sort where if someone logs on, they’re chastised, instead of tolerated or quietly lauded. If you’re in HR, you can advocate for/sustain Covid-specific sick leave, so that employees don’t attempt to hoard their sick days for fear of future catastrophe. If you’re part of a union, you can keep Covid sick days on the bargaining table. If you’re a leader, you can adequately staff your organization (even if it slightly affects your bottom line!) so that people don’t feel compelled to work through every sort of personal catastrophe in order to prevent an organizational one.
Having paid time off for illness — particularly one as potentially debilitating as Covid — shouldn’t be a privilege. But since it currently is, you should understand it as a right, and continue to fight for that right to expand to all people, not because they do work like yours, but because they are a person. They are a person with a body, and bodies, all bodies, even the bodies of those who conceive of themselves as exceptional, need rest. We spend so much of our lives trying to trick our bodies into disappearing, trying to ignore every signal to stop those bodies send our way. We have become so accustomed to punishing ourselves, and punishing others — all in the name of the enrichment of the very few.
You might think this a personal decision, but like so many decisions that people claim to be “personal,” it has far-reaching, collective implications. You should take time off for Covid because it’s better for you and your long-term health. But if that’s not enough reasoning, and I know that for many of you, it is not: you should take time off for Covid because it’s ultimately better — so much better, in so many overlapping ways — for everyone else.
Instead of weighing your capacity to work on a given Covid-positive day, consider your vision of the future. The more we discipline ourselves to behave like robots, the more we will be treated like them.
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