Employed But Overworked: Working in a Pandemic
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Employed But Overworked: Working in a Pandemic

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Illustration: Cathryn Virginia

The other day, I received a notification on my Google calendar: Tomorrow’s workday starts at 6:30 a.m. I glumly cleared the notification from my phone, turned off my light and went to bed.

The week prior, my supervisor had reached out regarding my contract extension, telling me that the extension had been approved⁠.This meant that I could now work with the Story Development team. In my office, that team begins its workday at 6:30 in the morning. This was on top of my continued regular hours, which kept me on duty until 6 p.m.⁠–all amounting to 11 and a half hours of working or being on call, five days per week.

When asked if these new responsibilities would be accompanied by an hourly increase–as I was now taking on the responsibilities of not just myself and another employee, but also those of three more empty positions⁠–I was immediately declined.

“We could have just ended your contract,” my supervisor said, with the air of providing me a favor for this new, elongated workday.

A nationwide issue

I’m not the only employee in the country who’s been in this type of situation of late (that is, overworked). Since March, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been seeping into the economy in both small and large ways. 

In May the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate was hovering between 13 and 16%, amounting to nearly 20 million jobless individuals in the U.S. Both Fortune and Pew Research Center shared further findings, including that: (a) the true number of unemployed is closer to 26 million or 27 million and (b) the unemployment rate for young adult workers, ages 16 to 24, stood at 28.5% in May, following correction.

With these numbers and the missteps of the government in getting the newly unemployed their benefits, all in the midst of a global pandemic, I did feel some guilt in even being offered this opportunity. I still had a job. I was one of the lucky ones. I was still going to have a paycheck, and (perhaps more importantly) health insurance, while so many others were not.

How much could I really fight for a higher wage–one that, in all honesty, was just a few dollars more per hour, as my supervisor had said herself previously–when I was lucky enough to be in this position? I may have been overworked, but at least I had work.

Different places, same boat

As it turned out, a number mutual connections and even strangers were in the same boat. I spoke with five friends and friends of friends who were dealing with similar situations, in varied industries and locations. 

E started as a copywriter at a Boston-based travel company less than a year ago. In March, she described the lack of response on work-from-home policies, causing confusion among parents at the company on what to do once the city closed schools on March 17.

E explained that, because of the demographic makeup of higher-ups in the company, the staff was unsure of how to do remote meetings and even how to pass out equipment, leading some coworkers to band together to say they wouldn’t come in if there wasn’t a resolution.

Now, four months later, E said it’s become worse, especially because the travel industry as a whole has been hit very hard by the pandemic. The day before she started working from home, there was a 15% layoff; as of June, her team was down 40%, and was asked to prepare the catalog copy for their 2022 cycle, alongside daily emails to customers. This was on top of staff being reduced to four days per week, and on 20 percent salary cuts.

“We’re working constantly and just trying to get this stuff out, and it’s overdue,” she said. “Everything’s a house on fire, but we can only do so much.”

C, a reporter with five years’ experience at his Manhattan publication, also had to pick up the exponential slack alongside his team. On top of the issues surrounding COVID-19, his office –as of November 2019–was already down by roughly 33% of their newsroom’s “optimal size.” 

His company made it clear to staff there would be no layoffs or salary decreases–but the fact that they were already significantly lacking in their newsroom’s numbers was disconcerting.

“It’s involved a lot of late nights, it’s involved a lot of weekends,” he explained. “There was a stretch of the entire month of April, where I had just one day where I wasn’t working more than 12 hours.” 

Staff wanted to come together to share in their concerns about the expectations for the increased workload but, more often than not, some couldn’t show up to the Zoom happy hours because they were still working until 8 or 10 p.m. on a Friday night. 

These situations can be found beyond just the media industry, of course. A, a marketing coordinator for a B2B company in New York City⁠, took over her boss’s responsibilities when he was laid off in mid-March, a man with 20+ years of experience compared to her three. L, a nurse in Nebraska, was tasked with conducting COVID-19 tests at an outdoor facility during her hospital’s furloughs; now that she’s back to her full-time role, she’s still expected to work at the testing site, and only recently had her first day off after 23 days on-duty. J, a community organizer with a non-profit organization, said his office dealt with layoffs prior to the beginning of work from home policies, which has left the remaining employees, with their increased work and 20% pay cuts, feeling “stretched thin” and “left in the dark.”

According to E and the others, there are many ways that these issues could have been assuaged by leaders at these companies—but the lack of guidance, positivity and assistance has led many to feel dismissed, and for the employees to question what their work will look like post-COVID-19.

Not such a new issue

Non-profit employee rights organizations have dealt with the issues brought to light by the pandemic for decades. Workplace Fairness and Jobs with Justice together have more than 50 years of experience in this realm, and both organizations have been fielding inquiries in droves since the beginning of the crisis.

Edgar Ndjatou has been with Workplace Fairness since July 2019, now as Executive Director. The organization–a team of three part-time staff and some interns–provides information to employees regarding workers’ rights, in accordance with federal and local legislation. 

“I believe it’s very important, in times like this, where you have a true crisis and everyone is affected, that leaders really try to be empathetic to what their staff is going through,” he said. “I think that’s really the word of the year, ‘empathy,’ because everyone’s dealing with it.”

However, when situations lead to a great deal of stress like the examples of our anonymous sources, and employers have not acted to alleviate this stress, Ndjatou explained that it’s best not to suffer in silence: “Being able to meet as workers and band together to protest work conditions is protected, and workers should take advantage of that.”

Erica Smiley is Executive Director for Jobs with Justice, where the staff works to support workers in collective bargaining rights, employment security and a decent standard of living within an economy that works for everyone.

According to Smiley, the pandemic created a sense of “urgency for some of the things we were already asking for,” and has continued to showcase large discrepancies in workers’ rights around the globe.

Many people are now effectively working three jobs instead of one–as an employee, a parent/caregiver, and a teacher, for example–and the stress of their official full-time role ramping up their responsibilities can add further grievance to their lives. Should you now be required to work or be on duty for longer than you originally signed up for, you may lose time for sleep, exercise, relaxation or catching up with family and friends.

“We’re putting working people through this extreme trauma, but there are really some easy solutions,” she said. Possible solutions could be staggering work shifts, allowing for employees to take more time off, and providing more pay.

In the absence of any company-wide solutions, however, Smiley also mentioned the possibility of employee action, and further discussed how the pandemic could lead more employees to really take into account how important unionization is for their rights and safety, along with their long-term economic benefit. 

“At what point do we turn off the invisible hand of the market and turn on the human hands and needs?” she asked. 

Activist groups throughout the country have increased their efforts to protect workers with measures including permanent increased pay, ensuring emergency sick leave, and attaining PPE for essential workers, largely through advocating for unionization.

The way forward

Twitter, Shopify and Coinbase are a few of the larger names leading the 100% work from home policy. Conglomerates like Lowe’s Home Improvement have committed to millions of dollars in bonuses to their employees. More recently, a survey by Buffer and AngelList showed that 70% of those currently working remotely like the amount of time they work remotely, and 19% wish they could work remotely more often. Further, workers are happiest when they spend more than 76% of their time working remotely.

Yet flexible and remote work does not automatically ensure reasonable work hours. Bonuses do not necessarily represent workers’ rights. Flexibility to work remotely is great, until you’re now assumed to have more time to work as you’re not commuting or going about other plans, for example.

“A lot of companies are panicking, and taking full advantage of this situation and squeezing everything they can out of the people going through this situation with them,” E said.

That’s the predicament that I, along with many, have found myself in. Unfortunately, there are no real straightforward resolutions that can occur overnight. But talking to others in similar situations–overworked and under-compensated, if employed–did lead me to question my own sense of guilt. Should we really be feeling “lucky” and “grateful” for having stable employment? Or were we all dealing with comparative instances of bad workplace practices and care, coming to light in very tumultuous times?

I look forward to working only eight or nine hours per day. I look forward to being compensated accordingly for my work. And I look forward to these things while also believing that efforts to improve working conditions should be pushed across all industries. 

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