The Privilege of Not Working

Finally — weeks too late — I’m going home from what my company considers “essential work.” I program and repair electrical devices the company manufactures in a Dallas warehouse. These devices are crucial in efficient energy infrastructure. It’s high-skilled labor, I’m told. Many coworkers with electrical engineering degrees have precisely the same job, with a fancier title and a larger salary. By contrast, I cut my teeth in the Navy, where I went to basic electronics school and worked on missile systems. But anyone could do this job with a little coaching. You plug in a power source, you turn a wrench, you file a safety report. I happened to know a guy. I don’t like the work very much because it does not involve writing, which is my nerdy bliss. But I’m lucky to have a job with a generous 401K, better health benefits than most, and a flexible, understanding boss.

I’ve found it easy to be glib about my economic status. I complain that *I just don’t have the money.* If there’s one thing I’m reminded of during the pandemic, at least in the silo of my personal life, is how fortunate I am.

Three weeks ago, as coronavirus began its python squeeze on the American economy, my company announced at least a temporary modus operandi in which it would pay employees even if they chose to stay home for fear of the illness. The company called it “shelter at home,” mirroring the government parlance. Dozens of companies had so far established strategies to respond to the virus, including forming crisis management teams (why hadn’t they already had these in place?), expanding sick leave, and contact tracing for employees who’ve been diagnosed. These all tiptoe around the obvious, correct, and painful solution, which is to let people go home, and with pay, whether they appear healthy or not. Because, as the world has known for weeks (Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp), asymptomatic COVID-19 vectors can infect others. My company had done the right thing, a rarity in the modern employment landscape.

My company is imperfect. It recently hired an outside executive to lead my department who then embarked on a salvo of terminations of low-level managers, firing them without any warning. One was on vacation with his wife. The executive made reporting and goal requirements harder to meet and cut pay. And after only months, he jumped ship for a better job. It made people question their positions. It made people start looking elsewhere.

But it’s hard to appreciate how much being kept and being safe — and simultaneously — means to people at the whims of a company that could just as well clean house to save money. One person responded in an internal instant messaging thread that the announcement of the stay-at-home offer was “inspiring,” mentioning friends who work for employers who would not institute similar policies. My company is full of loyal employees — people who have been working here many decades — who are aware of the slash-and-burn attitude many companies have toward employees. They love the energy industry; they love the company.

Still, the company still wants to keep operating. It offered a generous incentive for workers who want to produce despite the pandemic: it would tack an extra 25 percent onto any worker’s salary who came into the production plant or went on field jobs (which would only be scheduled in emergency cases).

The shelter-at-home announcement was sent on a Friday, and my boss said I could work the next Wednesday if I felt like it. Then, he said Wednesday and Thursday. By the time our service center was on a conference call Monday morning, we’d all be working Wednesday and Thursday. And Friday, he added. And all of next week. We were behind, you see. We had deadlines to meet.

We started showing up. We worked out an alternative schedule where we four who work in the warehouse would do four 10-hour days, two of us on the front end and two on the back. One group would have Monday off, the other Friday; that way, each week would portend only three days where the full crew would be working. We’d social distance. We’d wipe down the tools. We’d disinfect the doorknobs. We’d take our temperatures and remind each other in a daily paperwork rite not to share anything unless it’s necessary. We’d all trust that none of the others had skipped across any American border.

This is an ethically fraught position. My boss is getting older and has several health problems. He delivers groceries to his mother. Two of my coworkers’ spouses also are high-risk to COVID’s worst ravages.

My company, through the same media it used to announce the shelter-at-home and extra pay policies, announced that several employees have tested positive for the virus this week. They were working in the central Chicago plant, hundreds of miles from my North Texas service center. It ordered them home for two weeks, traced their contacts, hired a contractor to sanitize the affected working areas. It shut down three production plants across the United States and one in Canada until April 13.

At the same time, Dallas County reported its largest case spike. Donald Trump, baffled though he is, seems to now be taking the pandemic seriously. The government wants everyone who can to stay at home through the end of April. I’ve been listening to radio shows where overwhelmed medical professionals call in to plead with listeners to isolate. One said something like, We’re at work for you — please stay home for us. Reports of doctors having to choose who lives and dies in a famine of medical resources proliferate.

I told my boss it was no longer safe for me to be here and I’d shelter at home after this week, foregoing that attractive 25 percent salary bump. He said that was no problem. He said he understood. He said he was freaked out, too, adding that everyone would respect my decision. I didn’t tell him I’d snooze and catch up on long-neglected wellness and reading and writing, though he probably knows I’ll do that. Or that I’ve stocked up on edibles. But even if I think he’d frown at my pot habit (and possibly be obligated to fire me), he’s a thoughtful guy who’s expressed some awareness of others’ troubles during this time. He gave $100 to a woman who runs a homeless kitchen several days a week in his neighborhood. She couldn’t find the normal expiring food supply at the neighborhood Kroger.

I generally take the 40,000-foot view that, trapped in the jaws of capitalism as many of us are, we’re prevented from being who we want to be. Artists are starving ones, and those who aren’t are diamonds in the rough or sell-outs. Mothers who are responsible for the most economically important tasks in society do not register in our desensitized web of fiscal metrics. While I’m aware sometimes of how lucky I am, I get personally, pessimistically mired in the grim facts of our society. I have not been successful as a writer, which is partly to blame on my personal indiscretions but also partly on the fact that society does not value expression in tangible ways. The cumbersome difficulty of pitching, the subsistence wages of freelancers, the decline of newspapers and magazines — these dynamics are present for everyone interested in a field that’s adjacent to the arts. So I’m stuck in a programming job.

But I’m not stuck like a person who can’t buy food or pay rent or is forced to labor in unsanitary warehouses. I’m unburdened with decisions about who will live and who will die. I’ve found it easy to be glib about my economic status. I complain that I just don’t have the money. If there’s one thing I’m reminded of during the pandemic, at least in the silo of my personal life, is how fortunate I am. I don’t have to work, and I won’t lose my income. I don’t know how many people out there can say the same.

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