These Young Women Are Being Forced To Go To Work Despite Coronavirus

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise
"I really don’t want to go back. I’d prefer to be completely locked down than having to go to work, because people are still not listening to the government rules," says 25-year-old Maya*. She works in administration for a mortgage company and claims that all she needs to work from home is a laptop and access to a database, but says her employer won’t let her leave the office. 
Maya is one of an untold number of young women still being made to turn up to her workplace as normal during the coronavirus crisis, despite it being entirely feasible for her to work from home.
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We know that women are going to be hit particularly hard by the lockdown measures being introduced by the government in order to slow the infection rate of the potentially fatal virus. Staying at home isn’t safe for those in domestic abuse situations, for instance. However, it seems women are also being negatively impacted by employers who ignore the new rules.

The concept of working from home has long been a pipe dream – cast as a luxury. Now it has become a matter of life or death.

For full-time employees, the concept of working from home has long been a pipe dream – cast as a luxury, as niche an employment practice as standing desks or the provision of four types of sashimi at an all-inclusive office canteen.
However, in our new normal, working from home has become a matter of life or death. For businesses with non-essential workers, the government has offered furlough (that’s paid time off work) at 80% of each employee’s wage up to £2,500 per month for three months.
On top of that, official government guidelines – now enshrined in law – aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 insist that members of the public "only go outside for food, health reasons or work (but only if you cannot work from home)". There are exemptions for people whose jobs demand a physical presence in the workplace.
The government’s more detailed explanation of this states that bosses must empower workers to fulfil their duties from home, reading: "Employers should take every possible step to facilitate their employees working from home, including providing suitable IT and equipment to enable remote working."
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But what if your employer, like Maya’s, hasn’t read or is wilfully ignoring the small print? 
Three women across the UK, working in very different industries, spoke to Refinery29 about their work situations right now and how they don’t really match up to the government’s guidelines on letting employees work from home.

The woman who sits across from me has been coughing and sneezing too, but she hasn't taken any time off. We're just expected to carry on as normal.

Maya, 25
Last Tuesday morning before work, Maya felt ill, with a runny nose and sore throat, so she called to tell her boss. 
"I know I didn’t have coronavirus symptoms and normally with a cold you come into work but I just didn’t want to risk it. But my manager said, 'We’re not on the list for working from home, we have to work in the office,' and made me come in." 
Once there, sitting at a desk "that was no way two metres apart from the person sitting next to me," Maya felt even worse. The office has, she notes, updated employees with "precautions and how to sanitise our desks and not to mingle with colleagues in other offices, but the fact we’re all going into work defeats the object of all of them."
She told her boss she had to go home, and that’s where she’s been isolating for seven days.
During our conversation, Maya coughs continually – one of the major symptoms of COVID-19. "But I’m expected to go back in," she says when I point this out. "The woman who sits across from me has been coughing and sneezing too, but she hasn’t taken any time off. We’re just expected to carry on as normal."
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This has had a tough impact on her mental health. "I’m quite a paranoid person anyway," she explains, "so I’m worried about what’s going to happen. I don’t normally call in sick, and I would have been happy to work from home this past week, but my manager’s trying to make me feel guilty about not being in the office."
Meanwhile, 26-year-old Emma* works in marketing for a small industrial manufacturing company. As a result of this crisis, her role has become even more possible to do remotely.
"All meetings have been cancelled because of social distancing, so we’re mainly using email and phone to communicate. I could do all of this from home," she tells Refinery29. 
Being at home would secure both her safety and others’, she says. "My parents are essential workers in supermarkets and so come into contact with lots of people. If I am exposed, I don’t want to bring it into the workplace as well. But even when I’ve mentioned this I’ve been told we have to come in."
In a letter to staff seen by Refinery29, employees at Emma’s company have been told: "Unless you are in self-isolation following government guidance, or not attending work under our specific instruction, you are expected to attend work as normal."

It's stressful and it seems like instead of allowing us to get the 80% furlough, they'd prefer for people to drop off and get statutory sick pay direct from the government.

Emma, 26
Emma is very worried. Although communal surfaces are being cleaned more often and antibacterial hand soap has been provided in the toilets, she says: "It’s stressful and it seems like instead of allowing us to get the 80% furlough, they’d prefer for people to drop off and get statutory sick pay direct from the government."
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The HR manager at Emma’s company – who is herself off work due to illness – doesn’t seem approachable as she’s the wife of the director. And besides: "We’ve been told that as long as orders come in, it’s business as usual."
"I’m getting angry and resentful coming into work," Emma adds. "It’s not even about the money, it’s just a horrible feeling like we’re being used. They’ve put cash flow ahead of staff wellbeing."
Some workplaces are now being more flexible after pushback from their staff. Claudia*, 43, works in customer service at Aviva’s Norwich offices, where staff have recently been permitted to work from home. The insurance company had laid out instructions for social distancing in the office with strategic placement of Post-It notes, Claudia claims. "It made me feel extremely unsafe, trapped in a building where their only measure was to put yellow Post-It notes up reminding the staff of social distancing rules."
Following outcry from staff, Aviva permitted workers to fulfil their jobs remotely but hasn’t yet provided them all with relevant tech equipment. "All I need is a laptop where I can set up a private connection via a VPN as well as a Skype link," Claudia explains, "but the laptop orders are delayed because the company didn’t anticipate the demand for home working."
"They’ve waited for orders so there’s no interruption in service for the customer, and the company has made it clear that customers are valued more than staff," she adds. 
A spokesperson for Aviva told Refinery29: "Our priority is the health and wellbeing of our people, and we are following government guidelines to ensure their safety in the workplace. The vast majority of our employees are working from home. Where roles have been identified as essential and need to be carried out from one of our offices, we have taken all necessary measures to ensure the safety of people and premises."
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Things are undoubtedly grim for these workers right now. They want to follow the government’s mantra by staying home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. But doing the right thing might come at the cost of their livelihoods. 
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills reiterated to Refinery29 that the current rules are clear when it comes to social distancing, and that every company should be doing its utmost to ensure employees can work from home.

You cannot legally be dismissed if you have a genuine concern for your health and safety. Employers have an obligation to keep their workforce safe.

Deeba Syed, Rights of Women
Empowering employees to know they’re in the right would be a good first step, says employment lawyer Deeba Syed, senior officer at legal charity Rights of Women. More than this, Deeba says people should know that "you cannot legally be dismissed if you have a genuine concern for your health and safety. Employers have an obligation to keep their workforce safe."
If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, like any of those detailed above, as with any employment grievance, she recommends keeping a paper trail of complaints as well as emailing the government’s guidelines to your employers so that they can’t later claim ignorance.
At present, there is no explicit law banning people from making their staff turn up to work unnecessarily. There is only government guidance. However, Syed helpfully points out: "There is scope for existing health and safety legislation to be used in future claims." She also anticipates an uptick in future employment tribunals thanks to mishandling of this crisis.
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Meanwhile, the Labour Party is pressuring the government to issue a list of vital sectors so that others can shut, criticising its "phony lockdown" which they feel has not been explicit enough. 
We don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last or how many weeks we’ll be instructed to keep our distance from one another. What we do know is that disputes between employers and employees are here to stay. Sure, in the approaching global recession many will feel grateful to have a job – any job – but seeing their employers prioritise profit over people may just be the push some young women need to look for a new job. 
As Emma explains: "While it’s good to gain experience, this is not the place I want to stay in when they’ve made us feel so replaceable. After all this is gone, I’m moving on and I’m moving up."
*All names have been changed to protect identities. 
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.

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