What happened to “Shelly” shouldn’t happen to anyone, but it’s happening all over right now. Shelly has been anonymized to the point where she might not even recognize herself, but her plight is real.
Shelly has an autoimmune condition and struggles to maintain her job as manager of a small boutique at the local mall. With her you’d-be-surprised-how-little-over-minimum-wage income from this job, she supports her adult daughter who is disabled and has the same autoimmune condition. Shelly has relied on the local food bank off and on for a few years now, even though she works full time. Nonetheless, Shelly is known as a generous woman in her community, providing all kinds of help to neighbors in need. It’s true what people say—those who have the least, give the most.
When the pandemic hit and the first lockdown order came, our local mall closed. It’s been so weird going by that huge building and seeing it deserted, with all those acres of empty asphalt. When we went to Phase 2 at the beginning of June, some of the larger stores reopened with safeguards in place. Shelly’s store remained closed.
Now Shelly’s store is reopening. Returning to work isn’t safe for her, even with normal precautions for that type of business, because any exposure to the virus could threaten her life, and her daughter’s if she brings it home with her. Shelly’s employer insisted she return to work; she refused. Because of this, her employer can consider her separation voluntary and she can’t get unemployment. Washington’s COVID-related unemployment benefits have been exhausted anyway and if you don’t go back to work, you don’t get paid. She may have a case against her employer or the state; kicking around on the internet has only confused me further as to what her rights are in this situation. The bottom line is, she’s out of a job because she and her employer disagreed on when it is safe to return to work. It’s hard for a woman over 40 to get another job, and it’s unlikely to happen before the pandemic has passed.
The dilemma is real for so many people in this audience. I have another friend who doesn’t know yet if her daughter’s school will reopen in the fall, but she can’t send her either way, because my friend has a serious immune system deficiency and can’t risk having her daughter bring the virus home.
We’re not all able to resume living in the world at the same pace. The world is in reactive mode and policies are being made in haste—and they’re always one-size-fits-all. Many in this audience will be left behind or forced to make hard choices.
Once again, I’m aware of how my hard-luck situation was turned into privilege when the pandemic hit. Living alone (if you consider a houseful of cats “alone”) in the woods, in an active rural community where we look out for one another, working from home as I have for the last 10 years, I’ve had it relatively easy through all this. I definitely suffered from a lack of medical care during Phase 1, but that’s improved a lot since I restored my regular care routine. It hurts my heart that I can’t go visit my friends in Canada and ride through the land I’ve come to love, but that’s nothing compared to losing a job or a home. I don’t have to weigh a child’s needs against my own, or decide whether to risk my life or my job by making a stand against an employer.
This is really your column today. Tell us all what hard choices you’re facing at this stage in the pandemic. Maybe someone else’s dilemma is similar to yours and you will have insight for each other; maybe you’ll just be seen.