Frustration and questions among some who are still in the workplace

A man cleans a water fountain.
Custodian Anton Jennings cleans one of the water fountains on the first floor hallway of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday. While many Minnesotans are now working from home in the effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, a lot of people are still required to go to a place of employment. And many of them express their concerns.
Rich Pedroncelli | AP Photo file

While many Minnesotans are now working from home in the effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, a lot of people are still required to go to a place of employment. And some of them say they don’t understand why they’re asked to come in when their job can be done from home.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hits the United States and Minnesota, many companies have rolled out policies to allow employees to work from home. But that transition often came with confusion and frustration, and is not an option for everyone.

MPR News heard from several Minnesota workers who say they are being told to go to work and are concerned about their health and workplace safety. They didn’t want their names to be released because they were worried about putting their jobs at risk.

Those concerned workers shared some common themes: Their bosses have said that everyone is essential and so they must all turn up in the workplace.

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UnitedHealthcare, for example, is allowing people at risk from the virus to work at home and also people with child care or transportation issues. However, everyone else is expected at work. The company declined to comment, but a statement on its website says: “The health and safety of our employees is paramount to us. At the same time, the members, patients and customers we serve depend on the people of UnitedHealth Group to be fully engaged during this public health crisis, and we are committed to meeting their needs each and every day.”

Some of its employees who contacted MPR News said they are unhappy with the policy.

Also some county workers in different parts of the state who say they could be working from home remain at work — simply because it is against county policy.

Some vented frustrations about bosses who have changed their minds a number of times about whether to allow working at home. Also, a couple of people told MPR News that their bosses say the current pandemic situation is overblown and there is just no need to work at home.

Some companies have said there are practical issues with having people work at home, including overloading computer systems, and concerns about security. Some businesses are trying to split shifts where half the employees work from home one week and the other half the next.

And as all K-12 classes are canceled and schools prepare to do distance learning during the pandemic, some teachers are also worried. They said that even though they’ve been told to prepare to teach at a safe distance from students, some districts are having them crowd into classrooms with colleagues to do curriculum development work, which they say they could do from home.

Katherina Pattit, associate professor of Ethics and Business Law at the University of St. Thomas, said one of the long-term impacts of the current health crisis may be a reevaluation of what is important in a job, shifting the balance from work for pay to something more about taking care of a community.

Correction (March 20. 2020): A previous version of this story misspelled Katherina Pattit’s last name.