America’s Inescapable Offices

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Workers who have already returned to their cubicle report days full of anxiety, masks, and sanitation shaming.

In the face of unprecedented disaster, even elaborate safety measures can seem absurd and insufficient. For instance, to clear radioactive debris from the roof of the molten Chernobyl nuclear reactor, Soviet authorities resorted to using what they called “bio-robots.” About 4,000 human men were handed gas masks, gloves, and lead-lined boots and instructed to fling the radioactive graphite over the roof’s edge. To keep their radiation exposure relatively low, each worker would spend only a few minutes shoveling. Then the next bio-robot would take his place.

I was reminded of the Chernobyl cleanup crew’s intricate safety dance when I was on the phone with someone in a typically much tamer profession: government contracting. The contractor in question—who asked to go by James, his middle name, to avoid professional repercussions—had been working from home in Ohio since the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect in mid-March. But the order was lifted in May, and on June 22, James says, his whole office was asked to return, even though coronavirus cases were rising worryingly in the state.

Like the bio-robots, James and his co-workers are supposed to follow rules to minimize their risk in this obviously risky situation. At the beginning of the day, everyone gets their temperature taken. They are supposed to use hand sanitizer frequently and wear masks in common areas, such as the conference room and the kitchen. But James told me that almost no one wears a mask in the conference rooms, and some people leave their nose uncovered as they mosey about the office.

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James hasn’t asked his bosses if he can work from home, because, as a new employee, he’s worried about seeming like a squeaky wheel. But the risk of getting a disease with no cure has raised James’s anxiety levels, causing him to spend much of the day wondering whether the person across from him has the coronavirus, or whether the office’s air-conditioning is silently shooting infectious droplets his way.

Thus tensed up through the workday, he has found himself acting out of character, cracking down on his co-workers like the COVID-19 police. When he recently saw a colleague walking out of the bathroom without washing his hands, James barked at him that he was being disgusting. “That’s not something I would have done pre-pandemic,” he told me. “But I think I just kind of snapped in the moment, as I was standing there singing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

Millions of Americans who normally work in an office are still working from home, their bosses unwilling to risk infecting them for the sake of butt-in-chair time. But others are not so lucky. Some workers are being called back in, even though the coronavirus is still spreading, and even if their job can be performed from home. Those people are stuck between the danger of exposing themselves to the coronavirus and the danger of losing their job during the worst recession in living memory. Some of them seek work elsewhere when the stress becomes too much to bear.

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The uneasiness about whether it’s safe to return to work is, in part, driven by President Trump’s deferring largely to states and localities when it comes to reopening. Several states reopened too quickly, and now face rising coronavirus infections and deaths. But if a state is technically “open,” there’s little to stop a business owner from calling workers back to their cubicle.

Alison Green, the HR expert who gives advice at Ask A Manager, recently doled out tips for workers being asked to return to the office unnecessarily: “Point out that your competitors aren’t. Ask [your bosses] about how they’re planning for people who must take public transportation. Ask how they’re complying with every CDC recommendation listed here. Think about how you can generate some bad PR for them without risking your jobs.” She noted that if you are at high risk of serious complications from COVID-19, you can request remote work as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But not every situation is covered by the ADA, and not every person who is worried about getting sick is high risk.

Even workers who are at high risk have found themselves without an easy way out. Dennis Cote, a barista at the Stumptown coffee shop in Portland, Oregon’s airport, received a voicemail from his manager in early July, a transcript of which he shared with The Atlantic. In the voicemail, the manager asked whether Cote was “ready to come back to work.” She appeared to suggest that if he wasn’t, she’d note his refusal in a “log,” which Cote feared would jeopardize his unemployment benefits. Cote was worried about returning, because he’s immunocompromised. “I have a lot of anxiety and dread about it,” he told me. Still, he planned to return, “because I’d rather be making some money than no money.” (LaTrelle’s Management Corporation, which operates that Stumptown location, said in an email, “We report job offers that are made, as we are requested to do so by the state.”)

For other workers, the job isn’t worth the risk. I spoke with one woman on the condition of anonymity, because she doesn’t want to get fired from her job at a real-estate firm in New York that she’s thinking about quitting anyway. A few weeks ago, she said, her bosses insisted she return to the office so she could, in their words, “integrate” and “make sure things are running smoothly.” The woman began having anxiety dreams about catching COVID-19.

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At first, she begged off by telling her managers that she was staying in the suburbs, too far from the city to commute every day. But soon, she plans to return to the city and simply not tell her bosses that she’s back. “I guess I have to not tell people where I am or where I’m living,” she mused. “I don’t want to be going into an indoor space right now with other people.”

The woman told me she’s interviewing for other jobs—ones in which she can work fully remotely for the time being. That might become a more common choice for people who have other options. Even before the pandemic, remote work was an attractive perk that drew people to certain companies; people love their pajamas, even when their life isn’t on the line.

As employers consider asking their workers to take health risks for their job, giving employees a choice in the matter might be wise. Even the Soviet bio-robots were given a choice—at least nominally—about whether to carry out their work. As Adam Higginbotham writes in Midnight in Chernobyl, before the men set off on their treacherous task, Nikolai Tarakanov, the deputy commander of the U.S.S.R.’s Civil Defense Forces, told them, “I’m asking any one of you who doesn’t feel up to it or feels sick to leave the team!” Of course, it’s debatable whether a major general of a totalitarian state’s army would really have taken “no” for an answer. But he did ask.

Many American workers, meanwhile, don’t feel up to it. They don’t want to risk it all by hurling contaminated graphite off the roof, even if they’re equipped and trained. That’s especially true if they could be doing the same work from the safety of their couch. As the pandemic rages with no end in sight, more reluctant bio-robots might decide to turn in their lead boots and climb down.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.