How the pandemic has changed the way we work (Part 3)

By Barbara Sheehan
Posted 12/30/20

A study released this month from the Pew Research Center reported that most Americans (60%) who now work from home would like to continue doing so. But what about the many workers who can’t?

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How the pandemic has changed the way we work (Part 3)

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A study released this month from the Pew Research Center reported that most Americans (60%) who now work from home would like to continue doing so. But what about the many workers who can’t telecommute? The Pew study, which surveyed 10,332 U.S. adults in October, found that 62% of Americans cannot do their jobs at home.

Many of our Northwest Philadelphia neighbors are still getting up and going out to work each day. The conditions they face have changed, in some cases dramatically. In this, the third part of a series, three neighbors share their pandemic work experiences.

Mount Airy resident Pam Chaplin-Loebell, 47, is an assistant teacher at the Cooperative Nursery School at the Unitarian Society of Germantown. The school shut down when the pandemic hit, but in August, the board and the director suggested that the school continue with one important change.   The classes would take place outdoors. 

Parents agreed, and currently the school serves about 28 children ages 2-5. “We do everything outside except for bathroom and naps, “ said Chaplin-Loebell.  The school set up outdoor cubbies; added weatherproof toys, supplies, and furniture; and provided access to rain boots, coats, and hats.  The program runs daily from 8:15 a.m. to 3 p.m., with some opting for a half-day.

Will they be outside through the winter? “Yes,” she said, “as incredible as it seems.”

Chaplin-Loebell hopes that when the crisis is over, they will still do a lot of their teaching outside. “You get wet, you get dirty,” she said. “It’s a wonderful experience, if you know you can dry off.” She feels the outdoor program teaches a lot about self-regulation and problem-solving—real life skills.

“Parents,” Chaplin-Loebell said,  “made the choice to be in a cooperative school and an outdoor school. It’s for the more adventurous types.”  Parents often bring coffee and pastries or other small gifts for the teachers.   “They are really grateful, “ she said, “that their young children get to play with others in a safe environment.”

Chaplin-Loebell feels that the adults and children are generally healthier with this new setup.  “Usually we see kids coming in with colds, boogers, and runny noses,” she said, “but the bugs are not being passed around now, because they are all wearing masks.”   She states that there have been no instances of COVID at the school.

When kids have questions about all the new precautions, she advises parents “to keep it simple.”  Perhaps they could follow the lead of one of her students, who calls COVID, “the germie guy.”   “He came to school one day,” Chaplin-Loebell related,  “and said to me ‘the germie guy is still here, huh? Don’t worry, the scientists are working really hard on it.’ ”

As for working outside most of the day, Chaplin-Loebell, who enjoys running in the Wissahickon regularly, said “ I would take this any day over not working or trying to do a computer-based session with preschool kids.”  

It helps to stay optimistic. 

The Pew study also found that for those who work outside the home and interact with other people, a majority say they are at least somewhat concerned about being exposed to the coronavirus and about half are concerned that they might unknowingly spread the virus to the people they interact with at work.

Jill Tyler, 54, a resident of Mount Airy and a licensed practical nurse at an area retirement community, aligns with the majority of Pew respondents. Her work community includes about 175 residents in independent living, personal care, or memory unit facilities. 

She sees many of her residents deteriorating due to the isolating protocols that the virus necessitated.  Some who were already fragile “are now extra fragile.”  She calls the increased loneliness, depression, and memory problems, “casualties of COVID.”

Tyler completes six 12-hour shifts every two weeks, and sometimes takes on extra shifts to relieve other nurses.  Her days might include assisting up to 35 residents, distributing medication, checking on their conditions, and alerting other medical staff of special needs.  “It is hard,” she said, “to remain six feet apart when you are dispensing medications.” 

She had some additional part-time work at a skilled nursing facility, but dropped that job when there was evidence of COVID there. “I didn’t feel comfortable going from the one facility to another,” she said, in case she might be transferring the virus to her fulltime job.  The facility where she works is considered COVID-free.

Regarding the COVID vaccine, she said, “I am not comfortable being the first in line to get it. If it is not mandatory, I will hold off.”  Tyler says most of her colleagues are undecided about taking it.

She hopes that support for healthcare workers doesn’t lag as the pandemic continues.  While she appreciates “the free meals and the little incentives here and there,” she hopes that a benefit like hazard pay for essential health care workers becomes a more widespread practice.

Another Pew study completed this month found that 60% of Americans surveyed say they would “definitely” or “probably” get a vaccine for the coronavirus, if one were available today.

Registered nurse Seth Rotman, 34, of Mount Airy, planned to be among the first to be vaccinated.  Rotman works as a medical-surgical nurse at Temple University Hospital. Since the pandemic, he works mostly with COVID patients. He contracted a serious case of the virus earlier this year, but after weighing the risks, says he feels “a combination of excitement and anxiety” about being vaccinated.

Dealing with COVID patients, Rotman said, “is stressful. To go in any day and know that things could go badly at any moment, it makes it very rough.” Ongoing staff shortages and the high level of acuity of the patients heighten the stress.

When he is called into the room of a COVID patient, Rotman said, “We have to stop at the door, put on a gown, cover our hair, put on goggles and then go through that process again when we go into the next room.” This can mean that it takes several minutes of preparation before entering to see each patient.

Rotman worries that he can’t provide the care he used to.  “For everything we do,” he said, “we have to consolidate and think about how much we are exposing ourselves, each other and other patients on the unit. It feels awful.”

Rotman, who has worked at Temple since 2012, is a member of the Temple University Hospital Nurses Association (TUHNA), which has been advocating for safe staffing levels.  “It’s not a new issue,” he said, “but COVID has exacerbated the issue.”   (TUHNA is a local chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), whose President, Maureen May R.N., issued an urgent call for increased Federal aid and statewide safe staffing legislation in an Op-Ed piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer (12/18/20).)

Like most people, Rotman hopes for a quick end to the pandemic.  “I look forward to being able to hug my parents again,” he said. He also would like to be able to go out and see people’s faces.  “I am so tired of masks,” said Rotman. We think he’s more than earned the right.

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