My COVID story: Employment uncertainty and self-isolation

Image courtesy of Hannah Payne

Hannah Payne, ‘17, writes about the struggles she has overcome throughout the past several weeks after having contact with a potential COVID-19 patient and being ordered to self-isolate. Payne describes the contrasting reactions from her two employers and the lessons she has learned in her first week of quarantine. 

My experience in quarantine has been a roller coaster of emotions, but my biggest takeaways have been the importance of prioritizing myself over my work and how imperative a supportive work community is. I am presently working at two companies: a substance abuse rehab facility in downtown Chicago and a private practice therapy group. I love both of my jobs, but the culture of these organizations are drastically different. The responses each of my employers have had to COVID-19 have only further highlighted my feelings toward each of them, for better or for worse.

I arrived at the rehab for work Monday, March 16, 2020 very worried. As a rehab facility, we run like a hospital and are essential workers. Since I am a therapist, I can conduct sessions over the phone or via teletherapy, so I reached out to human resources to discuss what my options were and if I could take extended sick leave if necessary. I was feeling anxious about being at work and wanted to follow the CDC recommendations as much as possible. My sessions at the private practice had been moved to teletherapy, so I was hoping to see if that could be an option there as well. I did not receive a response to either of my emails, and when I called, they stated that I could use my paid time off if I was uncomfortable but would have no other option. 

When I returned to work Tuesday I was even more stressed because I had learned that one of my friends was showing all of the symptoms of COVID-19. I knew reporting my potential exposure was the right thing to do. 

It was clear that the organization I was working for was not going to support me in this process, so I was nervous about what may come of me divulging this information. When I reached out to HR to inform them, they forwarded me an email about how to handle anxiety and then called me into their office stating that I had to leave the premises immediately and could not return until I had tested negative for COVID-19. When I explained the issues with that – test shortages, lack of space in hospitals and having no symptoms myself – they told me to go to an emergency room to get tested and send them a letter with proof of my results. The HR staff seemed to think I could get all of this done in one day, and I was told that I would not be getting paid for any of the time it took me to sort out these details.

Of course upon reaching out to my primary care physician, she stated that I would not qualify for a test, and she would write me a letter stating that I must quarantine for the next two weeks. I sent that off to HR, and they still had no answers regarding my pay and no idea of when they would know. The day after I was sent home I received an email stating that all employees who continue to work without taking a day off will receive a bonus, implying that they were willing to pay employees extra for risking their health by coming into work but not pay standard wages to employees taking CDC recommended precautions.

I am now a week into quarantine, and my direct supervisor called me yesterday stating that our entire department is quarantined because someone has tested positive. He claims that I will be paid for the past week, but I have received no confirmation from HR that this will be occurring. 

My second job has been nothing short of amazing. We transitioned into teletherapy almost two weeks ago, and my supervisor has been very mindful of how it has been affecting us and our clients. I reached out to her the day that I was sent home, and she has supported me every step of the way. She has regularly called me to check in, has scheduled practice-wide video chats throughout the week so we can support each other, and has done everything in her power to give me more clients and help me market myself to fill up my caseload while I may not be paid from my other job. She has made me feel valued and important and has continued to tell me that she is here for me and wants to help me to the best of her ability. 

As I have reflected on these two very different experiences and how I have been feeling about myself in these past few days of isolation, I have come to realize how much of an impact my work has on me holistically. Working at a rehab centre comes with a number of challenges simply because of the nature of the job, but the culture of that organization brings me immense stress. I don’t sleep well at night, I regularly get headaches, I don’t eat consistently and I leave feeling so drained that I can’t do the things I need to feel good for myself. My coworkers are burnt out and my supervisor is overworked so much he can barely support our department. 

On the flip side, I am excited to go see my clients at the private practice, I love going to group consultation, and I am always so happy to talk with my supervisor. I leave my day there excited to go back and feeling fulfilled.

There have been so many overwhelming changes throughout this past week, but I’m noticing some good ones as well. I wake up feeling rested rather than completely exhausted; my skin is clearer than ever, and I no longer have bags under my eyes; I have a desire to eat and the energy to cook a good meal. Being in isolation and thinking about the impact COVID-19 has had on our world brings a number of anxieties and emotions. I am worried about the health of my friends and family, I am worried about paying rent now that my primary source of income has been taken from me, and I am worried about how this is impacting people across the world. But being away from the toxicity of my organization has been refreshing. 

I am realizing just how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive work environment and to prioritize myself over my work. The majority of our companies clearly aren’t going to put us first, so why should we continue to cater to them? Take this time to make yourself your primary focus. Do what you need to feel well, reflect on how you are allowing your job to damage your well-being and consider what you need to do to make changes moving forward. Maybe you don’t have the option to work somewhere else, but how can you set boundaries to ensure that you are still able to take care of yourself? The holes in our systems are on display right now because of this pandemic. I think we all should adjust accordingly. 

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