What Happens When People Are Unable to Work Online?

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Kris, an associate at a Walmart outside Nashville, Tennessee, thinks her mom has COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus. Her mother works at the same Walmart, and now Kris, who withheld her last name out of fear of losing her job, has no idea whether she should be isolating herself. “She [my mother] has been running a low-grade fever and has been having trouble breathing,” Kris told Digital Trends. “I don’t think I’ve earned enough [paid time off] to cover all my shifts for the whole two weeks of quarantine. Maybe one week.”

Jay, a worker at a Costco outside of Los Angeles, has three kids, the youngest just a year old. He said he constantly worries about bringing the virus home, especially with the crowds in the stores these days making him feel like he works in a stadium. Jay, who has been employed at Costco for 10 years and also withheld his last name, said he has plenty of paid time off saved up to take if he needs to, but he worries about his colleagues, who may not have the same benefits.

Grocery store worker mid the coronavirus outbreak
Redner’s cashier Amanda Aiman cleans her checkout lane at the Redner’s in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, on March 16. Unlike other types of workers, employees at grocery stores are unable to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak. Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Jay and Kris, like millions of hourly retail workers across the country, have jobs that cannot be done remotely. “The warehouse requires a person to be there,” Jay told Digital Trends. “Everything is hands-on. The people who cut the meat, the bakers, the cashiers, the stockers, people have to be there.”

Dog walkers, warehouse workers, restaurant servers, health care professionals: All of these are jobs that, for the most part, cannot be done from a computer while sitting in an apartment. In the age of “stay at home” orders and declarations of certain industries as essential, there is only so far tech can go to make a job that requires being around people easier and safer.

While retail workers are finding themselves standing far too close to other people in stressful work situations, freelancers and small business owners are feeling the pinch in other ways. Bill Mayeroff is a freelance dog walker and trainer in Chicago. He said that while he’s still able to do some dog training via video, his business has all but dried up in the last month because most of his customers are home with their dogs all day. Dr. Bhavin Shah, an optometrist in London who runs his own practice, said he’s sometimes able to see patients via video chat, and his business is still partially running, but “income fell off the edge of a cliff last week.”

Costco line amid the coronavirus outbreak
Hundreds of customers wait in line to enter a Costco store amid the coronavirus outbreak. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

‘In no way a part of my job’

Ariel Sharone is the general manager of a popular bar and live jazz club called The Maison in New Orleans, a city that heavily relies on its food service and tourism industries. Like many establishments, Sharone’s venue is now a bare-bones operation for takeout and delivery, with reduced hours.

“The internet is in no way part of my job,” Sharone told Digital Trends. Running a restaurant and bar can’t be done remotely, not for the manager, or any of the staff working there.

Though there has been a push for donations through Yelp and GoFundMe, as well as local efforts to buy gift cards and make donations to help local favorites ride out the pandemic, times are still tough. Sharone said he’s considering a career shift, despite his love for what he does in the hospitality industry. “We’re on day 13 of no work, with no end in sight,” he told Digital Trends. He said his savings will sustain him, but he worries his skills don’t translate to any other industry. “I’m rethinking my professional life completely. This might be the catalyst to making a career change.”

Kris told Digital Trends that as of now, Walmart allows for three days off if an employee thinks they’re sick. A further two weeks of paid leave is allowed, if the associate is diagnosed with COVID-19. Those who haven’t been diagnosed but feel the need to stay at home can do so, but must used their paid time off. That policy is supposed to be in place until the end of April. A representative from Walmart said that this was a moving target situation, and that leave policies could be updated at any time.

A spokeswoman for Costco told Digital Trends in an email: “As always, our focus is to have merchandise available for our members at low warehouse prices” and refused to comment further about Costco’s worker safety policies.

Tech and training

While Sharone and others like him may have the means to change careers, immigrant service workers may be in the toughest position during the crisis. Their options could be limited due to visa status, language skills, or geographic immobility.

Cell-Ed, an app-based education tech company, is looking to do more for that group during the pandemic. It provides app-based courses that focus on English-language skills, professional etiquette, and a variety of life and communications skills that can be used in any number of service industry jobs.

Grocery worker during coronavirus crisis
Redner’s cashier Christina Selepcheny hands a customer their package of paper towels at the Redner’s in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, on March 16. Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

“We just started getting some inbound requests from companies in the service industry that would like to support their workers and upskill them during this challenging time,” Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, Cell-Ed founder and CEO, told Digital Trends. “We hope to see many more that want to utilize this time wisely. We believe that Cell-Ed was created for this time and we have a responsibility to help vulnerable populations.”

Some companies have attempted to step up and help retailers figure out the new reality of living with coronavirus. Quinyx is an app that manages logistics and behind-the-scenes communications and scheduling for owners and employees of retail, hospitality, and cleaning companies. The company told Digital Trends that a lot of companies have been reaching out in the past month for help.

“One major restaurant chain in the U.S. told us they didn’t understand how important communication was until this tragedy occurred,” said Andreas Sjölund, chief risk officer for Quinyx. “Companies really do need help with communication.” The app allows employees to easily schedule and reschedule people for shift work, and allows employees to put out calls for a need for extra shifts across multiple companies.

For now, Jay and others like him will continue to have to work cheek amid the massive crowds of people coming to his Costco. But for people like Mayeroff, Shah, Kris, and Sharone’s employees, the future is more uncertain.

Rothenberg-Aalami told Digital Trendsthat  Cell-Ed, for instance, has extended free services to select nonprofits and created a COVID-19 guide for clients’ service workers in multiple languages to help keep those who must continue to do their jobs as safe and informed as possible.

The bigger question remains: Can tech help hourly service workers, particularly those who have been reduced to zero-hour schedules like those at hotel chain Marriott or those laid off at bookstores and restaurants across the U.S. and more broadly, continue to do their jobs through the pandemic?

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