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All across America, the workplace is being redefined by the impact of coronavirus. Milwaukee is no different.
For most office jobs, that means working from home, video and conference calls – and lots of multitasking with children out of school for the foreseeable future. At OnMilwaukee, we had a very flexible approach to "punching a clock," anyway, but as soon as schools started closing, I sent out a very simple office email: your family comes first. Work at home and stay in touch, and we’ll get through this together.
But what if your boss insists that you come to the office?
If you’re like Amy (her named changed to protect her job), you suck it up – and reach out to journalists like me. If you’re like Beth (also not her real name), you do something more drastic: quit.
Here are two Milwaukee stories of how everyday workers are being impacted.
Amy said that her employer, a global manufacturer, has prohibited all work from home.
"The only reason we have been given is that it's policy," she said. "And now, since parents need to be home with their children, the options were to either come back into work by today or take unpaid leave for up to four weeks."
Instead of letting employees telecommute, Amy said instead they get memos. Wipes are available in conference rooms. The cafeteria is closed. Employees can eat lunch in the car.
On the other end of town, until the end of last week, Beth worked in marketing for another global company in Milwaukee with 80 employees locally. While its offices outside the United States had shut down temporarily, such was not the case locally.
Her boss, who had just returned from vacation, told her team that coronavirus was media hype.
"People will take this as a two-week vacation," he said in a meeting that she documented. "Our building is big enough that people don’t have to come in close contact with each other. Productivity will take a nose dive."
As someone who has worked remotely off and on throughout her career, Beth was stunned.
"Our main priority was to communicate to our customers that we were open for business and that all orders were shipping on time," said Beth.
She decided to plead her case. She showed her boss videos from LinkedIn that explained how manufacturing companies can work remotely. She shared CDC statistics.
"So we’re supposed to shut down?" he asked. "One person from each department needs to be here at all times during business hours. This company can’t run people not being here."
Beth said she was left with no choice. She has an adult special needs daughter who is immunocompromised. It simply wasn’t worth it.
"At that point, I stood up. I said, ‘I resign’ and walked out the door."
Now, she won’t be eligible for unemployment, and Beth knows that finding a new job during this pandemic will be next to impossible.
Said Beth, "Most people will think I’m insane. Insane? No. Fed up? Yes."
Amy, however, said she will continue to work for her employer, but she has contacted an attorney to look into this as an ADA case, because as a recent cancer patient, her oncologist encouraged to her work from home, anyway.
And, at the very end of the week, her company started to bend on the issue. Why? Because so many employees were preparing to take leave, and business would’ve ground to a halt.
"Obviously, I'm fired up and completely disgusted by their policy, which, by the way isn't documented anywhere," said Amy. She said she just cannot get on board with the head of her department’s philosophy: if they did it for you, they’d have to do it for everyone.
"I will be lessening my likelihood of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to my loved ones. I am acting socially responsible," said Beth. "I will use this time to work on me."
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.