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How the Government is Failing Non-Essential Workers

Let me start this by saying I am not a
public health expert or medical professional
or politician or anybody in a position where I
would have insider knowledge about why
certain decisions are being made, but I’m
assuming that if I don’t know why something
is happening and I’m not able to find out,
it’s likely that nobody else knows either.

So here’s what I have to say and it’s a TL;DR
so fair warning:

I think the state of Rhode Island is doing
an admirable job of handling this crisis--for
the most part.

Where I, personally, can see room for
improvement is with non-essential state
and city/town workers, many of whom,
like me, are still on the job and have been
on the job since this all started.

I am very happy that I still have a job, but
I also know that every day the state is
encouraging people to stay home while
essentially forcing people who could stay
home to come into work instead.  The
response I’ve gotten and that I know
others have gotten in regards to this is--

“If you want to stay home, use sick time.”

The trouble is, we have no idea how long
this is going to last, and many people
understandably feel that now would be
the time to hoard sick days, not start using
them if they’re otherwise feeling fine, but
would like to self-quarantine.

There’s an obvious solution here--

The state and the cities and towns could
offer paid time off right now to non-essential

This would result in more people being
able to stay home without worrying that
they’ve depleted sick time they may
need in the coming months or to take
care of their families, assuming they
even have the sick time in the first place,
and it would send a message to the
private sector that they need to do
something similar.

It’s very difficult for the state or local
governments to lecture businesses about
letting employees stay home if they
themselves are making workers come
in who do not need to.

Now, if you’re saying, ‘Well, you’re biased. 
This would allow you to stay home with pay.”

Yes, that’s true.  It would also keep me
from interacting with some of you and
getting you sick in the event that I’m
asymptomatic or it would keep me from
getting sick as I’m still interacting with
people every day for no discernible
reason other than that the state doesn’t
want to pay me unless I’m reporting
somewhere everyday to give them
eight hours of my life.

You’ll notice I didn’t use the word “work”
there, and there’s a reason for that.

Many non-essential workers in the state
do things that cannot be done remotely. 
That doesn’t automatically make their
work essential, it just makes it work that
can’t be done from home.

I’ve been working in the public sector since
I was seventeen, and I have seen a
resistance over the years to letting workers,
especially union workers, stay home for
any reason without having them use PTO
to do so.  In the past, when we’ve had
bad winters, closing up public buildings
has been something administrators have
been more and more reluctant to do--and
for what reason?

There are many departments and divisions
of government that simply aren’t needed if
people are staying home or not allowed to
visit those departments for whatever reason,
such as inclement weather or in the middle of
a pandemic.  So why have workers there?
Those workers would then be expected to be
on the road everyday, and even getting into
a minor car accident might put them in a
position where they’re taking up a hospital
bed. Why?

Because we don’t want to pay them to “sit at
home.”  Honestly, I wish I could remove that
phrase from the public lexicon for the next
few months, because nobody’s “sitting at
home” right now, they’re “saving lives.”

From a monetary perspective, these people
are paid from a budget that was set long
before we entered our current state.  The
money is already allocated and whether
or not the “work” is done for it, the money
would be there anyway. In that way, it
should actually be easier for the state to
set an example for businesses, because
the state is simply paying money it had
intended to pay regardless of circumstance,
at least for the time being.

If nothing else, the government should be
allowing non-essential workers to shorten
their hours without taking a pay cut--coming
in fewer days a week, etc.

About a year ago, I wrote about work vs.
time when it comes to employers and what
they want from their employees.  The running
joke now is that we’re learning how many
jobs can now be done remotely, and you
can probably hear the collective screaming
from bosses everywhere that the jig is up
when it comes to insisting that work needs
to be done in an office.  I wrote that piece
after applying for about fifty different jobs
that should have offered remote work and
didn’t, and came away from that experience
realizing that businesses do not feel that
they’re paying for your work. They want
your time, and it’s the hill every employer
I talked to seemed willing to die on.  One
company I interviewed with was so insistent
on me doing a job that could easily be done
from home at their office that when I offered
to take a substantial pay cut, they countered
with more money provided I agreed that I
would never request to work remotely. It’s
a strange obsession that employers have.
The idea that you’re taking their money while
watching The Price is Right while still getting
the work done.  There’s a lot to unpack there,
but all that is just to say--

Those same people are absolutely willing to
put public health at risk rather than pay
people to stay home, especially if those people
are honest about the fact that, in some cases,
they simply can’t get any work done from home.

Right now, local government needs all the
credibility it can get when it comes to telling
people to stay home, but when you look up
how many people are employed by state and
local governments, it’s shocking to think about
that many people still out and about every day,
even if they’re practicing social distancing and
taking all necessary precautions.  It creates an
impression. Some local governments are patting
themselves on the back for helping everything
seem as though it’s business as usual, but...isn’t
that something we don’t want to do?

If people get the sense that everybody’s just
doing what they always do, then aren’t they
going to take this less seriously?

I commend people who work in grocery stores
and at hospitals and in other essential jobs,
and I would join in the chorus of those who
are saying they need to see their pay reflect
that.  To me, this is a separate issue, and it’s
one that would help avoid getting those people

Let non-essential workers stay home and pay
them for doing so, regardless of whether or
not they can actually work remotely.

While that may sound cushy, you’re still talking
about relegating people to their homes for an
indefinite amount of time, and many of those
who work with the public do so because they
love it and feel passionately about it, and it’s for
exactly that reason that many of them know how
vital it is that they limit their travel and social
interactions each day.

I hope the state takes a long look at its current
policy and that cities and towns do the same. 
Every person who has more reason to stay
home is helping to accomplish the goal the
government says is of critical importance.

This is one way they can put their policy
where their priorities are.


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