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Warehouse Work in an Age of Contagion

· 6 min read
Warehouse Work in an Age of Contagion

As regular readers of Quillette will know, I work at a warehouse in West Sacramento, California, where every workday I toil in close quarters with dozens of other employees. In the days before the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, that wasn’t a problem. Now, however, it’s a little bit frightening. Last week, along with all other members of the company’s workforce, I received an email informing me that a supplier of surgical masks for all warehouse workers hasn’t yet been found. In the meantime, employees are improvising. People are covering their faces with bandanas, like stagecoach bandits in the Old West. Others are wearing ski masks, like contemporary bank robbers. Some wear scarves around their faces, even though the weather is fairly warm now. And some have even managed to procure actual facemasks. But most of the employees, like me, work uncovered.

Although we are encouraged to stay six feet away from each other at all times, that isn’t really practical. We’re all hauling bags and packages out of narrow aisles and it isn’t possible for two people to pass each other in a four-foot-wide aisle and remain six feet apart—or even one. Every shift used to begin with “standup,” a gathering of all the employees during which we would do stretching exercises and get a pep talk from our shift manager. Those gatherings have been temporarily canceled, although we are encouraged to do the stretching exercises on our own before coming to work. When we show up at the warehouse, we simply don our gear (vests, gloves, hand-held computers, etc.) and begin working.

The break room, which can hold more than 100 people is now allowed to hold no more than 25, all of whom must sit six feet apart. Our breaks, which used to be 15 minutes long, are now 20 minutes long, which gives us time to find somewhere to spend them besides the break room (I usually spend mine in my car). Signs posted all over the building inform workers of various ways to avoid infection (wash your hands frequently, give other employees a wide berth, etc.). Any worker diagnosed with COVID-19 is given 14 days off with pay, even if they’ve already used up all their sick time for the year. An employee can also take 14 days off with pay to care for a relative with COVID-19.

I like my job, but I’m 61 years old and have a 70-year-old wife. Since COVID-19 seems to be more dangerous for those over 60, I’ve been wondering lately if I ought to take some time off work. It wouldn’t be difficult to do. Over the course of a year, I have banked 30 hours and 39 minutes of paid leave, and 47 hours and 30 minutes of unpaid time off. Even after I run out of sick time, I’ll be entitled to the additional 14 days of paid time off that everyone else gets. My normal workweek consists of just four shifts of 4.5 hours each, for a total of 18.5 hours. If I wanted, I could take nearly two months off right now, get paid for much of it, and still not put my job in jeopardy. But I have chosen not only to remain at work, but to put in additional hours as well.

Governor Gavin Newsome has urged all Californians to practice social distancing to the greatest extent possible. Like the governors of most other US states, he’s ordered that restaurants and bars be shut down except for take-out service. Much of California’s workforce is currently idle. But certain workers have to carry on despite the pandemic. Doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers must stay on the job for obvious reasons. We also need cops and firemen and grocery store clerks to continue working. Those people all provide a vital service. But so, in our own way, do my colleagues and I. We allow people to continue to acquire important necessities without the risks involved in going out to a grocery store. And that can help “flatten the curve” of the spread of COVID-19. No, we are not putting our lives on the line in the heroic fashion that doctors and nurses are, by willingly spending our days with the sick and the dying. But by refusing to completely isolate ourselves from contact with others, we’re making it easier for those who want to completely isolate themselves and their families to do so.

My job has never brought me a great deal of emotional satisfaction. I’ve never felt like I was a vital link in the American social fabric. But now, I feel like I’m doing my small part to keep the country from shutting down entirely. Prior to the current crisis, our warehouse tended to be filled each day with Kitchen Aid mixers, InstaPots, vacuum cleaners, and weed-whackers—helpful items but hardly necessities. Nowadays we don’t see a lot of those. What we see mostly are boxes of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, Huggies, Pampers, various brands of baby wipes, baby formula, medical supplies, first aid kits, home exercise equipment (for those who have been exiled from their fitness clubs), Cup-a-Soups, breakfast cereals, pastas, and other staples of the American pantry that have long shelf lives.

Every day, the workers in my warehouse help to keep thousands of Sacramento-area residents out of local grocery stores and supermarkets. And that helps limit the exposure of those residents to the coronavirus. Of course, warehouse employees come into contact with one another every day. And the company has lately taken to hiring a lot of new workers, which means we are being exposed to newcomers nearly every time we go to work. This, clearly, puts us at risk. Do we have an obligation to our community to maintain the supply of toilet paper, canned goods, and disposable diapers? Or do we have a greater obligation to ourselves and to our loved ones to stay in isolation so as to prevent infecting them with COVID-19?

For now, I have chosen to keep working. There are plenty of grocery store clerks in my age bracket still going to work every day. Plenty of sanitation workers in my age bracket are still out collecting garbage every day. If doctors and nurses and cops my age can go out every day and face the risk of contracting coronavirus, I don’t see why I shouldn’t. My warehouse is located in Yolo County, California, which as of March 24th had recorded 10 cases of the novel coronavirus and one death. Most of my fellow employees live in neighboring Sacramento County, which is much more populous and had recorded 113 confirmed cases and five deaths as of March 24th.

I have many friends in the service industry—waiters, bartenders, booksellers—who are hurting financially right now. I, on the other hand, am actually benefitting financially from the pandemic. Prior to its arrival on our shores, I was working 18.5 hours a week and earning $16 an hour. But since the pandemic came to America, our hourly wages have increased by two dollars and the company is offering almost unlimited extra hours of work to those who want them. This week I picked up two extra 4.5-hour shifts (I would have picked up more but no one is permitted to work more than six days in a row). Prior to the pandemic, I grossed $296 per week. This week I grossed $495. I expect to keep earning that higher figure through at least the end of April and possibly well beyond that. Overtime pay has also been increased during the emergency. Instead of being paid the usual time-and-a-half, those who work more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week are paid double time. Money alone wouldn’t inspire me to put my health at risk by going to work during a pandemic. But it does sweeten the pot a bit.

If my wife or I were sick or lacking health insurance, I would probably stay home and self-quarantine. But we are both healthy and both the recipients of government-subsidized health-care coverage (being over the age of 64, my wife has Medicare; I’m covered by Obamacare, which is called Covered California in my home state). Given my age and relative lack of marketable skills, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work and earn (temporarily, at least) seven dollars above the state’s minimum wage. Likewise, I’m grateful to all those in my community who are doing their part to keep us all safer—either by temporarily shuttering their small businesses, or by sheltering in place, or by going to work in necessary industries and professions. And so I have decided to continue going to work for as long as I can.

Gavin Newsome estimates that 56 percent of Californians will eventually contract the coronavirus. Which means that I’m likely to get it myself. If/when I do, I may begin to regret my decision to remain on the job. But for now I’m going to keep on working. That toilet paper isn’t going to load itself onto the delivery van.

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