My COVID-19 Leave of Absence

mom and child on beach

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That’s right, I’m now on an unpaid leave of absence due to COVID-19. This feels like a really wild decision to make in light of people all around me out of work, losing work, and a potentially looming recession.

If you’ve been here before you’ve probably seen that I am a highly principled and ethical person. I could not standby any longer and allow my safety and (consequently), my family’s 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 Leave of Absence?

Bottom line, I don’t feel safe at work. With a high risk child who just completed cancer treatment and a diabetic husband, it’s 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 I’m 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 it’s pathetically bad, disingenuous implementation. And, other times they physically can’t be done.

A 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.

It’s 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… they’re 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 wasn’t 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” I’m not really even supposed to ask someone to step back. I’m 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 can’t 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.

I’ve been berated for asking them to put their money down on the counter and refusing to take it from their hands.

I can’t lecture customers on their improper behaviors. And even among those who are wearing masks, behavior is just insane. People aren’t 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:

“Man wipes face on Michigan store clerk, now considered an assault suspect”

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 doesn’t even follow policies? How can a manager ask someone to put on their mask when they won’t?

The irony of my lamenting this to my husband only to come across this story:

A second Walmart in Massachusetts has closed after cluster of coronavirus cases among employees

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, what’s 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 can’t fight it any longer. I’m 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 they’ve 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 aren’t 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 here’s 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 I’m able to do that right now has to do with the my son’s medical status.

I have all of the medical documentation in place saying that I should work from home (can’t) and must maintain social distance to work and protect my son (can’t… 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 so 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.

It’s 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 son’s ongoing medical care last year I didn’t make that much. And I’m 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 a secondary insurance THIS year, but not last, for some reason that still can’t be explained to me.

My point is, I’m definitely not financially independent yet, not even half way there by my conservative estimates. But, I have enough saved to make decisions that others aren’t privileged enough to.

Privilege Can Bite You in the Butt

Is it really a privilege to make those choices? I’m not sure I always feel so.

Sometimes it think it would feel a lot better to not have to make choices because it doesn’t seem that there are any available to you. In ways it would be easier if I knew we we’re going to be broke and on the streets in a couple of months if I had no income.

In that case I’d probably be at work, super stressed. But at least I wouldn’t be stressing over if I made the right choice when I have “no” choices to make?

Because, we’re 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.

I’m 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 get’s us closer to whatever normal is going to look like and getting our lives back on track.

10 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing lady. I’m so sorry to hear about all of this happening at your work, but I’m very happy that you’re able to take leave to help keep you and your family safe. (Also I’m always here for your rants in case you want to copy/paste into my DMs instead 😉 ). I hope you’re having a good night.

    1. I will keep you in mind for when I just need to rant without context! Occasionally this happens and it’s good to know who isn’t going to get too freaked out when one of those show up. Thanks for dropping in with some good thoughts.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I am a hospital pharmacist in Northern NJ (the epicenter right outside NYC). I have taken an unpaid leave of absence. I am a single mom to a 7 year old and I do not want to put her or myself at risk. When I read your post, I identified with it on so many levels. It is as thought I wrote it myself. Thank you!

    1. I’m so glad I was able to put some words down that reflect how others are feeling.

      Still makes me feel a bit guilty as we have such a small local case load, versus where you are located. It’s easy for me to say someone else did the right thing- harder for me to say to myself.

      Hang in there and I hope you are able to manage financially and no job repercussions and so on.

  3. Now imagine the response you would’ve received to your gentle nudges and requests to socially distance and/or wear a mask from the public, if you’d been a black person! People of color do not receive the same leeway or even courtesy as whites. We’re often met with rage, indignation, or hostility to same things that would just receive compliance if it came from a white person. Personally, I can appreciate the dilemma you were in as a front-line provider. You are absolutely right that “F.U. Money” is powerful because it gives us options to make best decisions for ourselves. I live in the Bay Area Calif and mask use is still high, but I too, see people walking into restaurants and shops w/out masks in the past week. I think collectively, we’re all getting tired of it. Good news is that so far, service workers where I live are towing the line on rules and insisting. I saw a teller just 3 days ago, inform a customer that he must go back to his car and get his mask or else he wouldn’t be served. The guy went outside and came back with a mask!

  4. Sorry you had to deal with that situation and make the tough choice. I have a good friend that’s facing the same thing. Very essential (nuclear plant operations). Fairly hostile work environment. Basically all coworkers are of the political persuasion that suggests freedom = failing to follow basic covid19 safety protocols. And his wife is immunocompromised and they have 3 young kids including a baby.

    He’s been off work on FMLA and medical leave of absence but returning June 1st. They have some FU money but it’s the kind of job that would be hard to replace and would cause money issues down the road, so he’s having to suck it up and hope they have good policies in place that actually get enforced.

  5. Not sure if anyone has read my previous comments on other posts here, but I’ve been unemployed as a pharmacist since 2018. I have been employed though as a medical insurance processor — not great money, but the M-F schedule and now working from home since early March 2020 it’s not a bad job at all. As a matter of fact, processors wanting to continue working from home permanently (about 90% of us) will be allowed to do so.

    Luckily, when I closed my last pharmacy site I also had FU money. I have been frugal for so many years that I don’t even see it that way anymore. I squirreled every squeezed every available dollar I could come up with over the years to put in ROTH IRA, Traditional IRA, and/or 401K accounts. I have no mortgage. I do have college debt, but went on income-based repayment beginning in early 2018 — which those payments are not COVID-19 suspended for 6 months. I have increased the contributions to my IRA accounts in the amount of those suspended payments plus what I’m saving on gas/vehicle wear-and-tear until October. Yes, the stock market is in the toilet right now, but I’m buying at lowering prices which means I’ll show greater returns sooner when the market starts recovering. I’m also saving by not spending on other unnecessary things just by staying at home.

    So, for the first time in a couple of years I can say I’m happy to not be working as a pharmacist anywhere right now.

    I’ve been making cloth masks for family, friends, and others. I wear a mask everytime and everywhere I go out. I am also disturbed by the masses of people who seem to think COVID-19 is over and gone — fools. I plan on keeping my butt at home.

    You won’t regret taking this unpaid leave. Time has a way of revealing what is and what isn’t important. Personal safety and good health more important than a ton of money. Sure, some will argue with that, but who cares. Stay frugal, stay safe, and best wishes for staying healthy to you and your family.

    Dr. Marie Lindsay, Pharmacist and stay-at-home medical claims processor 🙂

  6. Oh — one more thing. I was driving a 12-year old that was beginning to have electrical issues and it was a big small for when I need to pack up my two toddler grandchildren. So, in late January I was able to use some of ROTH IRA to pay cash for a new 2020 Honda Odyssey LX van. If I had waited one more week to make the decision I would have lost that money in the stock market crash. Whew! BTW, I love my new van. After 4 months it still only has about 2,000 miles on it! Have a great long weekend!!

    Marie

  7. It really comes down to risk versus reward balance. What is the risk? What is the reward? If the risk or at least perceived risk outweighs the reward then people will put on their masks.

  8. So sorry to hear about all of this happening to you at work. But glad to see you are able to step away and be ok financially. It’s disappointing that people can’t be more respectful when going out to shop these days. We’ve pretty much avoided going to stores because we don’t trust that enough people will follow rules with masks and social distancing. Hopefully things will get better soon. And yes, just wear the dang mask! – Dragon Guy

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