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Thats right, Im now on an unpaid COVID-19 leave of absence. This feels like a really wild decision to make in light of people all around me out of work, losing work, and a potential looming recession.
If youve been here before youve probably seen that I am a highly principled and ethical person. I could not standby any longer and allow my safety and (consequently), my familys safety, to be a sacrifice for the almighty dollar. At the same time, it feels really strange to not be working when I am capable. Plus, there is the guilt of not working when others are struggling. I should be glad to have a job.
Why A COVID-19 Leave of Absence?
The bottom line, I dont feel safe at work. With a high-risk child who just completed cancer treatment and a diabetic husband, its not just myself that I am putting at risk.
I have been trying for a month to model behaviors, as well as give suggestions to the staff I and management on how to work as safely as possible.
My suggestions are all falling on deaf ears at best. At worst Im getting push-back and near reprimands for not dropping it.
Policies that are in place on paper are just that. On paper. Often times they are just not being enforced. Other times its pathetically bad, disingenuous implementation. And, other times they physically cant be done.
A COVID-19 leave of absence seemed to be the only thing me and my employer could agree upon.
Low Disease Burden, Currently
Luckily, where I live so far has had very few cases. I live in a rural area, many of which have been insulated from COVID-19 so far. However, I live in a high tourist area.
Its a terrifying perfect storm, the sense of insulation and protection that living in a small community brings. Couple this with having your population more than DOUBLE for summer tourists.
Unlike areas with larger population densities who are used to thinking and aware of the realities of living in dense settings, the people who live my way feel overly protected.
But essential workers such as myself, who are unable to work from home, are working in stores that are getting more and more packed with out of towners and locals alike who are defying stay at home orders.
Those places that take the business of these out of towners need to be practicing safety and sanitation policies on par with any big city… and… theyre not.
Bad Behavior as Political Statement
I noticed a change in the last week. We went from what I would estimate as about 80% mask compliance in my area to about 20% compliance.
Early on I wasnt surprised to see how well I was seeing people masking up. With a higher than average elderly population in a retirement/tourist area, many of the elders know their risk.
But, something changed in the last week or so. Mask compliance went way down. Volumes of people in the store went way up. And attitudes have gone BAD.
Whereas a month ago I was seeing a lot of respect and understanding by customers towards others in the store, now, people are being downright rude.
People are ignoring the few things reminding them to socially distance from each other (almost no reminders are in place to tell them to distance from the sacrificial lambs, err, I mean, essential employees).
When I see a masked customer look back at who is crowding them in line, I see the unmasked individual behind them start to smirk.
The Gagged Essential Workers
Whereas one customer can tell another to back the fuck up Im not really even supposed to ask someone to step back. Im supposed to subtly step back to give myself space so as, not to offend anyone.
Practically speaking, they have said I can ask people to step back a bit, but not to any distances which make much of a difference. But what I can and cant do on my own only matter to a degree. Because, the problem with working with others is that your health and safety is largely reliant on their behaviors. I can only do so much.
Anyway, I now have people coming up to the counter practically licking the blast shields. Some of the taller men with big bellies are so close they can rest their bellies on the counter.
When I step up in a mask, they lean in closer. When I step back a foot, they put their elbows down.
Ive been berated for asking them to put their money down on the counter and refusing to take it from their hands.
I cant lecture customers on their improper behaviors. And even among those who are wearing masks, behavior is just insane. People arent handling having been isolated this long well.
For those who do their jobs and speak up, you are risking intimidation, reprimand from superiors, assault and even murder:
Lack of Leadership
Stores are requiring staff to wear masks. But store managers wear their masks under their chins, for example.
Why would anyone expect employees to wear a mask when the management doesnt even follow policies? How can a manager ask someone to put on their mask when they wont?
The irony of my lamenting this to my husband only to come across this story:
In the above news: During a Tuesday inspection, city officials found that not all employees were wearing face coverings while on duty, according to the report. The company told NewsCenter5 a mandatory mask policy has been in place for all employees, at least for the past week and a half.
Visible Inadequacies Hide Bigger Hidden Problems
And, not wearing a mask or wearing it improperly kind of seem like sour grapes…
But, if this is what they are willing to let customers and the public see, when it is written company policy, state-issued, and CDC guidance, whats going on behind the scenes?
I think you should always be asking what a is willing to hide.
Fine, They Win… And I have FU Money
So, fine. I give up. They Win.
I cant fight it any longer. Im banging my head against a wall.
I had been content to wait things out, being really unhappy, super stressed. Though I felt somewhat safe with few cases in my area.
That stopped when everyone decided the stay at home orders are over. Whether theyve been formally stopped or not.
My state is calling for a phased-in approach for reopening that calls for additional protections of essential workers. Too bad things are essentially re-opening without any formal government oversight ANYWAY. And, big businesses arent going to tell people not to come in, or to wear a mask, and so on.
I went from being very concerned to now actually feeling very unsafe. And I feel my employment is not safe if I continue to speak up.
FU Money and the Power to Be Principled
So heres the benefit of having an emergency fund and practicing living frugally.
When I finally said enough is enough, I was able to take an unpaid leave of absence. The fact that Im able to do that right now has to do with my sons medical status.
I have all of the medical documentation in place saying that I should work from home (cant) and must maintain social distance to work and protect my son (cant… be that something employer could generally make happen or not, questionable). So, I can safely request a leave of absence under current guidance and I may or may not get unemployment. We will do what happens there.
Privileged Choices from Previous Hard Work
I fully realize that I am very privileged to be able to consider an unpaid leave of absence. From what I have been reading online there are a lot of people out there who would like to be able to make such a decision.
Its a good example of how smart money choices, living below your means and having a well paying job can afford you.
That being said, due to my sons ongoing medical care last year I didnt make that much. And Im not on track for a lot this year either, even before the leave of absence. Despite working two jobs last year to try and keep up with the bills, I took in under $40,000 gross as a single-earner household. It was enough to qualify my son for Medicaid as secondary insurance THIS year, but not last, for some reason that still cant be explained to me.
My point is, Im definitely not financially independent yet, not even half way there by my conservative estimates. But, I have enough saved to make decisions that others arent privileged enough to.
Privilege Can Bite You in the Butt
Is it really a privilege to make those choices? Im not sure I always feel so.
Sometimes I think it would feel a lot better to not have to make choices because it doesnt seem that there are any available to you. In ways, it would be easier if I knew we were going to be broke and on the streets in a couple of months if I had no income.
In that case, Id probably be at work, super stressed. But at least I wouldnt be stressing over if I made the right choice when I have no choices to make?
Because, were often our worst enemies… so sometimes my stress over deciding if I made the right decision available to me is more stressful than not having decisions to make.
Speaking of being your own worst enemy… WEAR YOUR MASK
Look, I had a bunch of ranty stuff to say.
Im tired and I deleted it.
Just please, be a good human to other humans. Do the right thing to try and protect other people knowing that we never know which of us might be sick. Each little risk reduction measure gets us closer to whatever normal is going to look like and getting our lives back on track.
Regina is That Frugal Pharmacist. Shes a PharmD, mother to a son with cancer, breadwinning wife, personal finance enthusiast, artist, writer, and entrepreneur. Reginas single-income household has been debt-free, including her home, since she was 28 years old.
Her money approach is holistic financial health. She encourages mindful spending, awareness of the non-monetary costs of choices, and aligning personal values with money habits. Regina sees a frugal lifestyle and mindset as an important part of environmental stewardship. As such shes interested in ongoing efforts towards self-sufficiency and sustainability.