The Mighty Logo

What Happened When I Spoke Up About Enforcing Social Distancing at My Job

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

I was terrified to go to work. Every day, as I drove to my job, all I could think was “I’m killing my dad.” During the day, whenever people came near me, I would remember everyone they might’ve come in contact with recently and worry “If I get COVID-19, I will bring it home, my dad will get sick, and he will die.”

Like a quarter of Americans, my dad is living with underlying health conditions. He’s fought a rare invasive thymoma cancer for the last eight years, including surgeries which removed large tumors from his lungs and placed artificial linings to protect his heart. Most recently, he was on chemotherapy at the end of winter and early spring, which meant his immune system is compromised.

I felt guilty being so scared about working. So many people are facing unemployment, being furloughed or simply not being able to work. Since I work in agriculture, which is an essential industry, I am still able to work. I knew that many people quit their jobs in order to protect themselves from COVID-19 or protect loved ones with underlying health conditions. I considered myself very lucky that my job didn’t force me to interact with too many people, so my family considered it safe enough to keep doing. I wasn’t directly jeopardizing my health or anybody else’s by continuing to work. But that didn’t stop me from worrying, from being afraid to go to work and thinking maybe I was being selfish by not quitting.

After a week of this, I shared my fears, first with my therapist. Immediately, he told me I needed to talk to my boss. He told me I deserve to feel and be safe at work, and that clearly wasn’t happening. He told me that as an employer, he would want to know immediately if people who worked for him didn’t feel safe at work.  I had known I should probably talk to my boss, but still, I worried it was selfish. I work for a small business, and I didn’t want to make this already challenging time more complicated. It had never occurred to me that this would be considered not feeling safe.

Eventually, I realized that I really didn’t feel safe going to work. I should not have to worry throughout the entire day that every time someone walks within a few feet of me it would kill my parents. Furthermore, I wasn’t safe at work. By not having strong social distancing rules enforced, my company wasn’t following CDC or state protocols for COVID-19. By starting a conversation about this with my boss, I realized that not only might I feel safer, but I would be making everyone I worked with safer.

I still wasn’t sure, so the next morning before I went to work I texted one of my best friends. I’ve told few people about my dad being sick, and it’s not a conversation I felt ready to have with my boss. But my friend responded instantly saying that I had every right to do this, and I had to do it to protect myself, my family and my coworkers.

When I spoke to my boss the next day, I was honest with her. I told her about my dad’s health conditions, and I told her I didn’t feel comfortable coming to work when I would be going home to my family. We had an extremely constructive conversation about how our company could better practice social distancing.

When I thought about having this conversation, I never realized how much of an impact it could have. That day and the rest of the week, I felt so much safer at work. I no longer felt like staying safe was only my problem; it felt like other people were aware and helping. No longer did I feel like every time someone approached I was thinking “I am killing my dad by being here right now,” while they didn’t think twice about it. Instead, I knew they were reminded that these rules were in place to protect all of us, and needed to be followed. Even if they, as healthy, young adults did not worry about getting the virus. I knew that if I asked people to move away, or if I stopped doing something to walk away from someone, I would not get in trouble. I knew if I suggested ways the entire company could be safer, I would be listened to.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new Navigating Coronavirus Together group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Want to connect with others who are managing their health during the pandemic? Join Navigating Coronavirus Together now. Click to join.

I wanted to share this story in hopes that other people will speak up for themselves. Just because you are lucky to have a job and be able to continue working, does not mean you should have to put your safety at risk. You should be safe when you go to work, and you should feel safe when you go to work. For me, having a conversation made me physically safer, because of new policies and because I felt more comfortable personally avoiding people because my boss knew the situation. But also, and equally as importantly, it made me feel safer. I was no longer feeling solely responsible for possibly spreading the virus, and I no longer felt that I should quit my job to protect my family.

I hope that everyone’s bosses and coworkers are as supportive as mine were during this crisis. Please realize that by speaking up and starting these conversations, you are not being selfish. You are helping prevent the spread of a pandemic. And you are protecting those you work with and those they interact with on a daily basis. If you don’t feel safe at work because of the coronavirus, I hope you will speak up.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

getty image by PORNCHAI SODA

Originally published: June 11, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home