‘I Had to Put a String Across My Cubicle to Keep People Out’

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As the country continues its patchwork reopening and New York City barrels ahead into phase two, many people who have spent the past few months working from home are being told that it’s time to return to the office. Of course, countless “essential” workers — from health-care professionals to nannies and delivery workers — have never had the luxury of working from home and have continued to go to work throughout the pandemic at great risk to themselves. But the reopening of communal office spaces presents a whole new set of workplace challenges, especially for immunocompromised employees, for whom a return to cramped elevators, cubicles, and break rooms puts their safety in the hands of their co-workers, who may have very different levels of risk tolerance than their own.

The Cut talked to five vulnerable office workers about how they’re navigating the fraught politics of having both your health and your job at stake. Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

“I had to put a string across my cubicle to keep people out.” — Danielle, 34, Virginia

I work in a tax preparation office. When the governor ordered businesses to close, my employer walked around with a flyer saying that we had to go to work because we were an essential business. I was like: okay, I’m glad I have a job. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and I take medication that suppresses my immune system, so I wrote up a formal request to my employer asking to work remotely. But unfortunately, the Americans With Disabilities Act only covers businesses that have 15 or more employees. So my request for reasonable accommodations couldn’t be honored, because we have so few employees. I spoke with my employer and supervisor and HR person, and they said, you can’t work remotely, but you can stay home without pay.

The work that I do is mainly on the computer, and it would have been easy to access remotely with a simple Google Desktop or Citrix or the other options that they have out there. The CEO said he didn’t trust people having access to those kinds of things outside of the office. But if you can’t trust your employees outside of the office with the information, how can you trust them inside the office? My supervisors are not very technologically inclined, so setting people up to work remotely from home seemed like it was a huge undertaking that they weren’t willing to tackle. And it’s such a small business, there’s not a lot of accountability. The HR person is the CEO’s wife.

After that, I was like: I can’t afford to take off more time, and they’re not going to pay me. So I got my hands on some masks, because my mother is a nurse. And I came back to the office two weeks later. I now wear a mask the entire time I’m there. No one else in my office wears masks, no one. I’m constantly having to readjust the mask and make sure everything’s sealed, and I wear glasses, which fog up constantly. One day, my supervisor came over to my desk, walked into my cubicle, and coughed. And she’s like: Oh, don’t worry. It’s a dry cough. At one point, it got to a point where people kept walking into my cubicle, which is very tiny, and I had to put a string across the entrance to keep people out.

I feel isolated from the rest of the office. Because I try to socially distance and they have their lunches together in the conference room. But I don’t want to compromise myself. I’m afraid it will result in me being terminated for not being a team player.

“They want to pretend it’s not happening.” — Marie, Montana

I work in administration at a university. Now that case counts are at their highest point, it could get really ugly. It’s finally in the rural counties and everything. People are so removed from what’s happened elsewhere that it’s pretty unbelievable.

After our governor closed the state, I tele-worked for three months. I’ve worked from home for 20 years, so I’m very comfortable in that role. But I found myself in a position with a supervisor who had never worked remotely and wasn’t necessarily comfortable with it. I could see her and my co-workers really struggling. So finally, when the governor reopened Montana to phase two at the beginning of June, my boss said: I really need you to come back to the office. It’s interesting to be in a bureaucracy where people think that you’re only working if you’re sitting at your desk.

I have asthma and chronic bronchitis, and I’ve had a carotid artery dissection. And I have two kids with asthma, and I have a husband with high blood pressure. So I came back to work and just decided: I’m gonna follow protocols. I’m just gonna come in and mask up, even though it wasn’t mandatory. But then it became clear that my boss wanted me to begin to interact and handle things the way we always had. I know she very much wants it all to be the way it used to be. We were a tight-knit group — we’d come in, go get coffee, chat for 5 to 10 minutes with your co-workers, be in and out of each other’s offices all day joking and telling stories, and none of that is happening. I’ll come in and report to her with a mask on, and then later she will walk right by me without a mask.

I’ve put a note on my door just requesting people to knock and to wear a mask. But people on my staff are still moving around without them. I’m on guard all the time. And this is just the beginning. When school comes back in session, it’s gonna be very uncomfortable because already we’ve got students walking around campus and they’re not wearing masks. And I find myself taking zigzag patterns between the car in the building.

So I formulated an email to everyone where I said: I’m vulnerable, and I’d really appreciate for everyone to wear a mask when I’m moving through the common areas. I got a phone call from our dean that afternoon, and she essentially said to me that it wasn’t correct for me to send out an email that shamed people who were choosing not to wear masks in the building.

We’re not allowed to speak politics on campus. But it’s very clear that who’s choosing not to wear masks is driven by politics. I’ve always been a high performer, and it’s really weird to feel like you’re the bad guy in the office when you’re just trying to protect your family. Here in Montana, people just don’t want to deal with it. They want to pretend it’s not happening.

“They have used the pandemic as an excuse for bad behavior.” — Sara, 45, North Carolina

I work for a live-event production company. I’ve had Crohn’s disease my whole adult life, and I finally lost my colon back in January. My boss was very well aware of the situation with my immune system and that I was at a very high risk.

The owner of my company actually has nine different corporations, one of which is a transportation company. After North Carolina was put on lockdown, the president of the company, my boss, and another partner got together and decided that they’re going to force us to go to work and claim that we work for the transportation company, because they’re deemed essential. Now, my job is not essential. There’s nothing that I do that I can’t do from home. They knew the situation that I was in and were still willing to put me in that position.

When this started, my boss basically was under the impression that all of this would pass, all these restrictions were ridiculous, [the pandemic] was a hoax, the whole nine yards. She would bring her granddaughter into work with her and allow her to play in everybody’s office. No respect whatsoever for personal space. At one point, my boss and her granddaughter both started walking into my office, and I said: stop, please don’t come in here. I said, You’ve been out shopping, you’ve been eating out, you’ve been everywhere, please don’t come in here. And I got an earful about being an alarmist.

I think they have used the pandemic as more of an excuse for bad behavior that was already going on. If you’re a woman, you already know that you’re not going to get ahead in this company. And now they have more of a justification in their mind to be able to say: well, we can’t afford to pay you this much, but this guy who shows up for three hours a day, we’re going to give him a raise. People like me, it’s basically: Well, you’re lucky to even have a job, so take what you can get. And if you can’t show up, we’ll find somebody else who will take your place.

“We’re all freaked out about retaliation.” — Jen, 29, New York

My team and I composed a letter and sent it to our CEO, expressing extreme concern and distress at the idea of coming in. We said we would love to be back in the office with each other, but not not at the risk of our physical and mental health. Our CEO refused to respond to us; he just said: well, the office is open. The fact that he didn’t even feel the need to respond to us was just like a huge slap in the face. I heard he asked someone: so, are you all resigning? We’re all freaked out about retaliation.

The CEO is the kind of guy who’s always walking around the office. I think that he just wants to see people at their desks. He’s just really out of touch with the reality that we’ve been working from home very productively for three months, four months. And now he’s just like, well, we’re open, so we can come back, and why doesn’t everyone want to be back in the office?

I’ve requested reasonable accommodation through the ADA via HR because I have asthma. But they only gave us a week’s notice to work this out. I have no plans to actually go in. Most of the people are planning on going in just because they’re scared to get fired, especially now, when job hunting seems particularly daunting. We were doing really great working from home, so it just doesn’t make any sense.

It’s really demoralizing to realize that you work for someone who doesn’t care about you as a person at all.

“I feel like I’m being punished for being sick.” — Laura, 49, Illinois

I have common variable immunodeficiency. Essentially, my body doesn’t make enough antibodies. And I also have selective IGA deficiency, which means vaccines don’t really work on me, because I don’t have any of the antibodies that work with vaccines that say, hey, you’ve had this before, let’s kill it. So I can catch things more than once. It’s extra-super-scary, because even when there’s a vaccine, I would have to wait until everyone else is vaccinated before I feel safe.

I work as a technical writer, and I’m supposed to return to the office July 6. I just got a new letter from my immunologist requesting to work from home through July. My company is “discussing” it. So they basically have the power of life or death over me right now. I am completely at their mercy. I can’t not work. And I have to rely on everyone else around me behaving responsibly, including my co-workers. And then I go on Facebook, and all these people are taking vacations to North Carolina and posting pictures with their arms wrapped around people.

Still, I’m being pressured to return, because some of my co-workers have been complaining that it’s not fair that I’m working from home, and claiming that I’m probably not doing any work. So I feel like I’m being punished for being sick, and now I have to deal with people who are angry with me.

There are people who don’t think this is a big deal at all and that I’m being a hypochondriac or overreacting. I have not left my house since March 12 except to go on a couple of walks. We clean everything that comes into the house, we’re extremely careful. Our poor kids haven’t gone anywhere.

My job says they’ve supplied everyone with two masks. But apparently, people are not taking them home and washing them. They’re only required to wear them in small meeting rooms. And some people are wearing them and some aren’t. My cubicle is in a very busy aisle, and everyone passes me, so I’m extremely nervous. If I have to go back, I’m going to have to eat in my car. I’m not going to be able to drink at work or eat; if I get thirsty I’m going to have to step outside.

Vulnerable Workers on the Stress of Returning to the Office