COVID-19 in a small office situation
March 19, 2020 2:03 PM   Subscribe

How safe is this or is it safe at all?

I work in an office with three other people, two days a week, sitting at desks about six feet apart. It is a small facility which has a few customers, perhaps five or six to maybe ten a day total, plus packages and mail from USPS coming in on a daily basis, all of whom my job requires me to interact face-to-face. Three days a week I work alone in the office, behind a locked door, but am still interacting with these customers through a window. The other employees in the office are sales-only positions and could probably just as well do their work from home, only the owner has made no mention of implementing such a policy. Thus, we all sit in the office together, breathing the same air. My husband is urging me not to go in to this job, but I am worried about running out of money. I understand that this is probably worrying about the wrong thing, but it is a real concern. I have few people available to help me look at this in perspective, hence this question. One of my co-workers has been coughing away for half an hour from what she claims is "inhaling water the wrong way". I teeter between "it's a small amount of people, we'll be okay" and honestly, total panic and feeling like a fool for even going to a job where so far the only safety protocols have been an email sent out to customers informing them all surfaces will be sanitized (I do this) and telling them the facility's only bathroom is now staff-only. Unfortunately, the bathroom cannot be easily be locked from the outside and so everyone ignores the sign and goes on using it anyway. If the office door is not locked, as it often isn't when all employees are in the office, customers come barging in and are offended if the door is not left unlocked. This facility is very near the notorious Clearwater Beach, which doesn't help matters. Should I listen to my husband and try and get the manager to understand that they ought to work from home if the facility is to remain open, leaving me more able to control my work environment and how I interact with customers, or just stop going entirely?
posted by Crystal Fox to Health & Fitness (5 answers total)
So it isn't as safe as you being at home. Otherwise it seems like you're keeping your six feet distance and are able to limit interactions with people. For the customers are you able to maintain that distance as well?

The one thing I would take heart in is that when infected people were flying on airplanes they didn't appear to infect anyone else on them even though the seats beside, in front of, and behind them would have been within 6 feet, and that the air was being recycled a lot more than what you'll have in an office.

I'm at work and there are 5 people here total although we've got a lot of space between us. If I could shut us down I would but the government offices we work with are still running so we have to run too.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:48 PM on March 19, 2020

I think the top choice would be to persuade the manager to let anybody who can work from home work from home. I don't know what the best tactics are for that, but if you think there's any chance of that at all, it seems worth pursuing.

In terms of risk, I think a lot depends on what your coworkers are doing outside of work. If everybody is isolating and social distancing as much as possible, then I agree that the risk is less severe.

But if they are mingling with lots of other people, then there are continuous new opportunities to catch/spread the virus. Then the risk is more severe.

This isn't an easy call, so don't feel bad about struggling with it. It's a great example of why it's so important for leaders and bosses and managers etc. to actually take responsibility and make the right decisions. It sucks to be making this decision based on financial risks and calculations.

One thing that would be weighing on me a lot is if either you or your husband have any underlying health condition that seems to exacerbate the virus.
posted by Salamandrous at 3:13 PM on March 19, 2020

Do you have facilities staff or a reasonable amount of handiness and a company card? Getting the door-locking situation fixed so that doors stay locked seems like a very reasonable ask and something that would be an issue even without a pandemic.

You might also try putting some tape on the floor in front of the window to encourage customers to stand several feet back.

Depending on whether you think it will negatively impact your coworker, you might tell your boss about the coughing in the context of "people are nervous, it looks bad, they should work from home."

If you are in a higher-risk category, look at whether your state is mandating additional paid sick leave and what sort of employment protections you would be entitled to if you took a month+ off.
posted by momus_window at 3:27 PM on March 19, 2020

If you try speaking with your manager to reduce staff presence on-site, you could cite the official recommendations and the current good news ("On Thursday afternoon, Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously to close all the county’s beaches after Friday night" ( for your area.

Unfortunately, the bathroom cannot be easily be locked from the outside and so everyone ignores the sign and goes on using it anyway.

Rather than a staff-only sign, would an out-of-order sign be obeyed by the customers? (Your customers sound pretty pugnacious in the rest of your question, and only you know if this will cause more problems for you.) I am in favor of the new tape-on-floor, marked-threshold idea, as ordered by, say, the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:04 PM on March 19, 2020

Best answer: According to the CDC’s recommendations for implementation of mitigation strategies for Florida, based on current situation with COVID-19 transmission and consideration of the state’s large older adult population via the "Florida Community Mitigation" link at the Florida Department of Health's page of Resources, so maybe you can share this with your employer to support your request:
[p.2] Every Workplace [...]
• Know the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if staff become symptomatic at the worksite.
• Review, update, or develop workplace plans to include liberal leave and telework policies.
o Consider 7-day leave policies for people with COVID-19 symptoms
o Consider alternate team approaches for work schedules.
o Encourage staff to telework (when feasible), particularly individuals at increased risk of severe disease.
• Work with all local employers to ensure all workers have the financial support to stay home with any respiratory symptoms
• Encourage personal protective measures among staff (e.g., stay home when sick, handwashing, respiratory etiquette).
Another option to consider is Florida Unemployment Benefits, which "is intended to provide monetary assistance to those who lose their jobs for no fault of their own." However, you would need legal advice in Florida if you are considering quitting your job due to the inability or unwillingness of your employer to maintain safe working conditions, (aka 'good cause to quit') e.g. not implementing telework policies, especially for an employee with a cough, failing to secure the premises in the manner intended to reduce risks, an inability or unwillingness to implement six feet of 'social distance' as recommended by the Florida Department of Health, etc. One possible resource for free legal services is the non-profit Florida Law Help, which is funded by the Florida Bar Association. Recently, the National Employment Law Project advocated for "[e]xpanding the definition of good cause quit to employees refusing an assignment that violates health and safety standards" in a March 10, 2020 letter sent to Congress, so I encourage you to seek legal advice (MeFi Wiki) about how to proceed with a UI claim if you are considering quitting your job.

And while this an incomplete and still-pending support, it looks like the US government is working its way towards providing some economic relief: Senate Republicans release massive economic stimulus bill for coronavirus response (WaPo)
The legislation would provide checks of $1,200 per adult for many families, as well as $500 for every child in those families. Families filing jointly would receive up to $2,400 for the adults.
posted by katra at 11:22 PM on March 19, 2020

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