Omicron whips up the workforce, pushing overworked teams to the brink


The colossally contagious variant of COVID-19 emerged at the worst possible time for employers, as workers – many of whom were vaccinated and eager to socialize – gathered with family members over the holidays. The infections have flattened entire families at once in some cases. And for organizations who don’t have the luxury of allowing people to work remotely, the surge in positive cases is exacerbating a long-simmering staff crisis that has become even more urgent in recent months as record numbers have left their jobs.

Airlines are canceling flights, daycares are closing classrooms, and nursing homes are restricting admissions. More than 20 percent of New York City subway operators and drivers were unemployed on any given day last week, resulting in service suspension and reduced hours. A Walmart in Auburndale, Florida has had to shut down temporarily because many employees have reported sick.

In Massachusetts, 12,213 public school staff – nearly 9% – tested positive in the two-week period ending Wednesday. Although bus service was already cut last month due to a staff shortage, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has cut more trips as drivers fall ill and is also cutting back on two-way commuter train service. lines. And in Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest healthcare system, more than 2,300 workers were released with COVID in a week, prompting executives to call for volunteers to help at their vaccination sites. and test.

On Tuesday, Local 509 of the Service Employees International Union sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker imploring him to protect essential workers by implementing a temporary telework policy for all state employees who can do their jobs at home, ordering a statewide mask warrant, and providing masks, tests, and risk premiums for those doing in-person work.

In response to questions from the Globe, the Baker administration highlighted the state’s COVID emergency sick leave program and frontline worker bonuses from the federal ARPA program, as well as its masked counseling program. ‘domestic and telecommuting for executives, but did not address the widespread staff shortage.

“Over the past two weeks it feels like the game has definitely changed,” said Emily Kanter, co-owner of Cambridge Naturals, which began closing stores in Cambridge and Boston early due to a surge. exposed employees stuck at home. “There’s also just the lingering fear of: what’s going to happen tomorrow? Who is going to need to call? What procedures are we going to have to put in place? What note am I going to have to write to the team and our customers to help everyone feel safe? “

The difficulty of getting tested further hinders people’s ability to return to work. And with the advice on quarantine times and the rapidly changing masks and tests – and varying from one source to another – employers don’t know what to do, said Greg Reibman, president of the Charles River Regional Chamber.

“The clarity we had for much of this pandemic is no longer there,” he said.

Home Place, a home care agency from Northborough and Natick, said that at least 31 of around 200 employees have been exposed or tested positive since Christmas. The current staff shortage has gone from “bad to much worse,” CEO Angela Brunson Bartlett said, forcing the agency to try and fill the gaps with healthy workers and ask clients’ families to take responsibility. care tasks.

Chelsea Clain, a 28-year-old Home Place customer care manager who lives in Framingham, believes she was exposed at a family reunion on Christmas Eve – despite being given the cough she had the day before (her rapid test was negative), she could have been the culprit. She and her mother, grandmother, brother and brother’s fiancee all tested positive within days. Clain too Guess she gave it to a friend who came to babysit her 2.5 year old son before Clain knew she was sick. Clain, a single mom, works remotely and keeps her son at home, and she just found out her daycare was shutting down for the week due to positive tests among staff and children.

Clain’s father also tested positive after a separate Christmas Eve reunion with an aunt, uncle, two cousins ​​and their husbands, and a baby. In total, Clain is aware of at least 14 people in his immediate circle who contracted the virus which has spread “like wildfire” since Christmas Eve, including five who were unable to work.

“It’s terrifying,” she said. “The amount of contagion that can occur so quickly is incredible.”

At Advocates in Framingham, a social service agency serving central and eastern Massachusetts, more than 90 of 1,500 staff tested positive last week; most of them work with people with intellectual disabilities or mental health problems. Seven group homes are under quarantine due to infected residents, meaning staff cannot help cover shortages at other sites.

Some employees were already working 18-hour shifts to fill shortages or living in group homes to cover shifts, President Diane Gould said, and now the organization is using office workers to provide care. direct to customers. Some people who attend the day programs have had to stay at home because there were not enough staff and admissions to respite care were closed.

“My fear is that it will continue to increase over the next few weeks,” she said.

Omicron’s push is far from the worst thing some employers have faced in the past two years. Boloco co-founder John Pepper was days away from closing his Mexican restaurant chain permanently in the summer of 2020 when he found a way to keep the lights on in six of the eight locations. But given the number of employees calling due to positive COVID tests or exposure – 12 out of 50 since Christmas, at the end of last week – in addition to those threatening to quit rather than comply with the Boston’s Jan. 15 vaccination mandate, Pepper is temporarily shutting down one of its ailing Financial District stores. He’s also considering removing labor-intensive smoothies from the menu.

“You just put the pieces together and fight another month,” he said.

At Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn, owner Rachel Miller struggles to hang on every day. With at least 10 of 14 staff testing positive in the past few weeks, including Miller, “all hell is breaking loose,” she said. She’s switched to take-out only, but is losing income from selling liquor and big-ticket items like the $ 110 nine-course tasting menu that she can only serve in-house.

“It was just a nightmare,” said Miller, who opened the restaurant in the fall of 2019 and didn’t have a chance to hit his stride until the virus spread. “When does this end?”

Ward 4, a Newton’s restaurant that opened in June, had to close for two weeks starting just before Christmas after nearly half of its 19 employees tested positive within days.

“It’s hard to build real momentum or trust within the community when something like this happens,” said operations director Doug Peel, who was among those infected and also passed it on to his. wife and daughter. “I hope this is not irreparable damage.”

At Muto Construction in Harwich, business exploded as homeowners flocked to Cape Town during the pandemic. But with a handful of his 15+ employees testing positive recently, as well as others on contract teams, owner Jasen Muto said, “It’s definitely a drag on production.” He’s trying to meet demand with healthy workers, but some of them were already at work seven days a week, including Muto, who had COVID a year ago. “Almost everyone who works here has had it,” he said.

Donna Gadoua, a caregiver at the place of the house, was exposed to COVID on December 14, on the occasion of her 54th birthday. It was her day off and she went to help her Lancaster sister-in-law look after her two grandchildren as usual. But her sister-in-law had a sore throat, and soon after Gadoua left to take care of her 81-year-old aunt with Alzheimer’s disease, she discovered her sister-in-law, her sister-in-law’s daughter and her daughter’s 18 month old daughter had tested positive. (The relative in their 50s they caught him from is in the hospital on a ventilator, Gadoua said, and this week his sister-in-law’s other daughter, the girl’s husband and their baby 10 months old also tested positive.)

When Gadoua found out that she was exposed, she immediately stopped working. Three days later, she tested positive. Other caregivers covered some of her cooking, cleaning and drug administration duties while she was ill, although a 90-year-old couple largely fend for themselves. She asked her aunt’s son in New Hampshire to take care of his mother, but her two sons had also fallen with COVID and he didn’t want to put her in danger. The family hired another caregiver to come a few times, but her aunt barely touched her Meals on Wheels deliveries while Gadoua was away, she said, largely subsisting on Little Debbie mini muffins and shakes. Nutritional Ensure.

“I felt like all of these people were counting on me, and I was letting them down,” said Gadoua, whose husband also tested positive. “I was in tears the entire first week.”

Bartlett, the managing director of Home Place, said her staff had faced so much stress over the past two years that “we are past our wall of exhaustion.”

“I think now,” she said, “it’s just normal business. “

Katie Johnston can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on twitter @ktkjohnston.


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