*Editors note: Some interviewees in this article are being protected from backlash from their employers – that’s why for some we’ve used pseudonyms.
Since the beginning of March, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced many businesses to take action due to the disease’s deadly spread, rural America in North Carolina was affected in a variety of ways.
I had the pleasure of speaking with several different women from five different counties: Alamance, Halifax, Cumberland, Robeson and Scotland.
The one similarity that rang true was that every woman I interviewed was affected by Covid-19 in her workplace.
In Halifax County, I spoke with a worker named MaryAnne in the medical field. She said she was immediately furloughed in March once North Carolina closed down. After a few weeks, she and other associates were able to work from home, but when MaryAnne physically returned to work, she realized there was another concern. Due to her own high-risk health issues, her doctor instructed her to stop working since she was not able to be separated from patients and others. With this, she applied for unemployment, but was denied initially, then approved for the Pandemic Unemployment. It took about six weeks before MaryAnne was able to receive any funds, which forced her into an unexpected early retirement.
I spoke with Barbara, another healthcare worker, from Cumberland County. Barbara explained she was forced to still work, with a fever, until the results of her test came back. Within two days, she received a positive test result, and only at that time was she allowed time off. Barbara stated she was shocked this action was taken, but due to fear of losing her job, she still went to work until she did have a positive result.
Additionally, I spoke with Patricia who worked for a retail chain in Halifax. Because her community was so small, as soon as it was rumored that someone at her workplace tested positive for Covid, the community boycotted her store, forcing a brief closing for cleaning and to boost community confidence. As a result, Patricia found that other co-workers refused to either get tested or report if they were sick, making her feel unsafe in the workplace environment. She also said that mask wearing was not enforced initially with the employees, and that too was a scary time for her.
After a month of this insecurity, Patricia left that retail chain for another, where she discovered drastic changes. Because it was a larger chain, when she came down with strep throat, she immediately was given 10 days off … with pay. Patricia had another scare when she was in contact with someone who was diagnosed and again was given her 10 days leave, with pay. She found the change refreshing and was able to get her Covid test, which was negative, and return to work after the two-week quarantine period.
In Southeastern North Carolina, it was a bit different for Sophia, a teacher. The administration was adamant that Sophia continue with her lesson plans, even though she vocalized she was ill. She was surprised the school did not require her to get a Covid test, but because she was getting sicker and sicker, she sought out a test on her own. During this time, Sophia was denied the order for a substitute teacher and told by administration that no substitutes would be allowed. When she finally got back her positive result, she was only allowed a few hours off, even with a doctor’s note.
“I had to actually beg to take time off,” Sophia lamented, almost in tears. “And I mean I was sick, sick, sick. I could hardly get out of bed, body aches all over, especially my shoulders and back pain. It was pain like I have never felt before.” She took a moment and continued, “And they told me I could take the time off, but I would still have to take roll each day.”
Sophia did not get a negative Covid test that would clear her for almost two months, but the school still expected her to work, and she was never granted any time off. She said she worked the entire time, even though her body aches did not end until two months had passed. Sophia stated she was made to feel that her sickness was a letdown to her students by the administration.
“I was amazed when I began talking to my colleagues in surrounding counties,” Sophia said. “I found out they got two weeks off, no questions, once they got a positive Covid test. I was not allowed that same privilege. And after I talked with others who were part of my school family, I realized I was not alone, that several people felt they were treated unfairly.”
Sophia spoke with the school administration and other human resource professionals and came to the realization that if the administration treated one of their own this way, they would not treat the students any better once they were able to come back on campus physically. The whole situation disheartened Sophia and forced her to review the career she loved so very much, ending with her choosing a different path.
“I love teaching,” Sophia shared. “I absolutely love it. But I had to leave that toxic environment. Online teaching is a completely different animal, and I pray it ends soon.”
The last person I spoke with was Zelma, an entrepreneur from Alamance County, who had started her own cleaning business ten years prior. But as soon as Covid hit and the state closed in North Carolina, her clients all rolled up their welcome mats as well.
“I really didn’t expect that to happen,” Zelma admitted. “Friends and family assumed my business was flourishing during this time, but that didn’t happen.”
Like the medical worker previously mentioned, Zelma applied for unemployment in April for self-employed individuals and was approved for $140 a week, plus the $600 weekly pandemic payment. However, she still did not get her first payment until June. During this time, Zelma begged her landlord to work with her, but he refused, so she borrowed money from family to pay her rent.
“It was a really humiliating time, and I was truly scared,” Zelma confessed. “I ended up gaining 20 pounds, my hair fell out and depression set in. When the $600 addition stopped in August, I felt that same panic from earlier, so I sought out other cleaning companies to join. I was thankful I found one that was receptive to me working with them, otherwise, I am not sure I would have made it.”
As of this writing, we are a long way from Covid being over, with over 368K people testing positive since February in North Carolina. Of that number, 5,300 have died from Covid, with the fear of another surge on the horizon due to the family gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday.
A. Kay Oxendine is from the Haliwa-Saponi and has been writing since she was eight. She just published her first two novels in 2019, and is working on her third, and has a set of children’s books about her family.