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Life as an Essential Employee: A COVID-19 Story

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

| This is the 529th story of Our Life Logs |


When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, the world ground to a halt. By some act of God or the Hand-of-Fate, I was deemed an essential worker. While financially I was spared, the crisis that some-40-million-other Americans were grappling, I could never have predicted the challenges that my colleagues and I would face in our manufacturing plant. From bizarre corporate decisions to loud arguments about face masks to frantically cleaning industrial machinery to moments of simultaneous disgust and laughter, the first few months of the age of COVID has been anything but business as usual.

1| Nice to Meet You

A little background before I keep going.

A child of the 80s, I grew up in the East Bay Area outside of San Francisco before attending school in Virginia and ultimately accepting a job out of graduate school as a pastor in South Carolina. My salary was meager, but the work was fulfilling. After four years in vocational ministry, I completed a stint working for the state of South Carolina, and then finally landed my present job in Texas which is a steady stream of administrative humdrum—payroll, policy decisions, deadlines, creative projects, and the like.

I’ve always been a bit of a doomsday prepper. I don’t have a bunker, but I do keep a well-stocked emergency kit with enough food for my family for three-to-four weeks as well as some common security measures. A routine practice in our home is for me to suddenly look at my wife and say, “There’s a man in the house late at night—what do you do?” She walks me through the plan. Once safe inside the designated room with our sons, I quiz her, “What’s the gun’s safe code?” If she can’t tell me in a couple seconds I shout, “Too late—you’re dead!”

So, with a mindset like that, I was actually pretty in tune with the early rumblings of the novel coronavirus. In fact, on January 28, I texted my wife from work, “We need to keep an eye on the coronavirus—I’m worried about the boys in school.” Yes, I actually went back to my messages to check the date. I’m not some prescient soothsayer. I’m just a prepper at heart—I was bound to get one of these doomsday scenarios right eventually. Turns out, this was the one.

2 | Murmurs

While murmurs of the looming crisis slowly swelled in February, the hysteria was at full pitch by mid-March. Businesses shuttered and stay-at-home orders were issued. Everyone began viewing everyone else as suspicious—what if you have it? Are you the one that will get me sick? Are you like Typhoid Mary? Are you a silent harbinger of respiratory doom?

At the plant I worked in, we took a slow approach until we could no longer justify it. At one leadership meeting, the tone had noticeably shifted. We had gone from tentative, hypothetical planning to real-world decisions.

Our first steps were logical and measured. We closed the facility to non-essential staff, taking our 800-person facility to around 450 employees, with the remainder working from home. After that, we started venturing out to add additional protection measures like temperature screenings.

Then in late April corporate mandated a face-covering policy. In July 2020, we can see the wisdom in that action. But in early Spring, the jury was still out on the masks. At first, the masks were strongly recommended but not required. I remember heated debates would erupt over them. Let’s be honest—normally, we don’t wear them because they are a nuisance. So, consider being in a manufacturing environment. You are lifting heavy gear or assemblies while wearing OSHA required cut resistant sleeves, gloves, steel-toed boots, glasses, and in many cases, ear protection, all while generating large amounts of body heat. Now add a mask. Are you sweating yet?

The first few days after the coverings became mandatory, I was irritated. Imagine lifting a 50-pound assembly and mounting it in the exact location called for in custom engineering drawings, not too high and not too low, while your safety glasses are fogging up and a steady stream of perspiration spills down your back. Not a happy addition to the manufacturing experience.

3 | Try and Try Again

Then there were the temperature screenings. We had decided to screen employees before they entered the building to ensure they were not symptomatic or posed a risk to others. Round one included a drive-thru; the second iteration was another drive-thru screening procedure. But none of us were medical professionals. We were trained in supply-chain management, engineering, and industrialization—not global pandemic safeguards.

Our rollout of screenings was deeply frustrating because while it is warm in Texas in early Spring, in the morning it can be chilly—below 60 degrees—which, as luck would have it, was the lowest range of thermal screening devices. Our readings more often showed that employees were hypothermic than febrile. Another trip to the drawing board and we eventually refined the process to an in-person, inside-the-facility procedure. Now, three months later it runs like a well-oiled machine.

And then there’s social distancing. I hate this term. I would pay a hefty fine to never hear it again. Six feet apart is doable when you are walking down a grocery aisle, not when you are bolting together massive electrical gear shipping to a major data center. Here again, we tested, we failed, we adapted, we failed, and eventually, in most cases, we achieved some measure of success. The death of handshakes, high fives, quiet conversations at the expense of some goofy decision, and even sitting elbow to elbow at a cafeteria table has been hard to accept.

4 | At-Home Measures

And what about going home? In normal conditions, I feel gross after work. And now we add a pandemic in the mix with microbes that can clog my lungs and place me or my family on a ventilator. Meeting my boys at the door while they scream “Daddy!” is a thing of the past. No more hugs and snuggles upfront. Now, I sneak in through the garage and head for the bathroom. Inside, I strip, take a shower that is uncomfortably hot, and scrub thoroughly. My COVID clothes go to the hamper if they aren’t washed on the spot. I take a deep breath, do a quick assessment of myself to make sure no possible contaminant has gone unnoticed, and join my family for dinner. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when I leave the house at 4am and get home at 4:45pm, adding an extra 30 minutes of sanitizing routine is not a small shift. It’s thirty minutes less with my family. Thirty minutes closer to an already too early bedtime of 8:30-9:00pm. Thirty minutes lost each day to COVID-19.

In my estimation, the time for character building is not during a crisis. Surely a happy byproduct of challenging times is newfound resolve, strength, and hopefully, collaboration with others. But at the outset of a crisis, we are given an opportunity not to see who we could be, but rather to evaluate who we have been. In the COVID world, I think a lot of us have realized some good and bad qualities about ourselves. My company has genuinely sought to care well for its employees. A generous attendance policy was instituted to accommodate families with no childcare once schools closed. PPE was rapidly secured for our employees, some 60,000 strong in the United States when media coverage consistently bemoaned its shortages. Engineers moved away from designing custom circuitry to creating custom solutions to vexing barriers toward social distancing. We rallied and started making ventilators and face shields for local hospitals.

5 | Some Silver Linings

Yet despite all these honorable traits that bubbled to the surface, we had some lessons to learn. It’s a simple truth: To be human is to fail. It’s part of our existence. But in a high-performance culture, that sentiment can feel too risky. Then nature peppers in a public health crisis that will split history in two for generations. Yet even here, the trials of COVID-19 have yielded benefits in teamwork and willingness to fail. We tried homemade face masks, then surgical masks, then N95 masks for certain employees. We tried temperature screenings in at least 5 different versions. We tried social distancing. We realized we failed. We adapted, we moved on and tried again.

The more we admitted our need for help, our need for each other, the more we learned and grew. It has been a tough road and on many days, a measure of COVID-fatigue and cynicism reigns in my heart. But when I really reflect on my time as an essential employee, my time as a leader during this topsy-turvy year, the more I have grown comfortable with saying “I don’t know, but I will try. I will fail and I will try again.”

COVID-19 has taught me that it is not okay to remain idle. To remain stationary is to resign ourselves to a fatalistic view of life. It has also taught me not to expect perfection. I don’t think anyone ever gets it all right the first time. It’s okay to try and get it wrong. It’s not okay to dig our heels in, stay the course, and dismiss all evidence that subverts our delusional perception of success. We must try, we must fail. For in persevering through trying and failing we make possible a world where we can admit our fallibility, where we can then succeed, where we can embrace our innate humanity, and where we can be better, together.

This is the story of Jeremy Miller

Jeremy Miller is a production supervisor in Texas. He has two small children, Cole and James, ages four and two respectively, and has been married to his wife for six years. With a changed routine, Jeremy now spends his downtime at home in his new coronavirus uniform—a baggy t-shirt, loose gym shorts that probably should be discarded, and flip flops—if any shoes at all. After life returns to normal, Jeremy hopes to travel to Maine with his wife to visit a cooler climate and enjoy the mountains. While COVID-19 has been a difficult season, he is grateful for the reduced traffic and somewhat disheartened as the roads grow more clogged each day.

This story first touched our hearts on June 29, 2020.

Writer: Zach Farrer | Editor: Colleen Walker

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