Q: I am a single mom with no family living nearby. At my job, I have to receive deliveries and mail and take calls, so there is no work I can do from home.
Since schools closed, I have been taking my 10-year-old to work with me, where she sits in a windowless room next to my office. She threw a tantrum when I took a few minutes to try to get her to do some schoolwork. My boss is usually very understanding, but he got upset and said I need to be productive. He later apologized and asked if I wanted to take vacation days to stay home. I was going to save my vacation days so I can visit my elderly mother overseas for three weeks, as I do every year.
My boss has received a Paycheck Protection Program loan. I asked him about emergency paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but he said our four-person company is exempt from that law. He said if I want to apply for unemployment benefits, I am welcome to resign. He also said if I am gone for too long and he has to hire someone else, he might keep that person.
I am not sure what I should do. I feel like I am falling through the cracks.
A: Your story, and many like it, show how despite quick catch-up measures taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the result is still “this patchwork of protection that is just not adequate,” according to Jim Katz, a labor lawyer with Spear Wilderman. The CARES Act “has more holes in it than Swiss cheese,” says Katz, and with its broad exemptions, the Families First act “for the majority of workers in this country is an empty promise,” even with its paid leave for parents of school-age children.
In the meantime, as ever, it’s on workers, employers and communities to assemble their own survival plans. It sounds to me as though your boss is trying to work with you, so I would treat unemployment as a last resort after you’ve exhausted all attempts to negotiate a solution that covers each of your basic needs.
For example, can you come in for the most intense hours of the day and use vacation leave for the rest? Can you swap some duties with other workers? Can you have work calls forwarded or check voicemail from your personal phone? Can your poor kid — pinned at that age between needs and responsibilities — agree to do her “job” for just a few hours while you’re doing yours, after which your time and attention are all hers?
And while I know too viscerally the agony of postponing already-too-seldom visits with distant loved ones, you should rethink how you plan to use vacation leave this year. These are extraordinary times, and we all are having to change our usual plans for the short term to protect ourselves — and those loved ones — in the long term.
And now, a workplace problem from the opposite end of the misery spectrum:
Q: Our team has been working diligently at home during the pandemic, and despite being pushed to the max, we have pulled through and fulfilled an important scheduled milestone. Team members are exhausted and burned out, and a little frivolity would do wonders for their spirit. Can you think of any remote team-building exercises that would help to improve morale?
A: I’m guessing the last thing anyone in this pandemic wants is more online group interaction — but I have yet to hear of anyone turning down bonus paid time off. Gift cards for takeout or delivery are always good, too.