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US: Working from home — the new normal?

Julia Mahncke
May 13, 2020

People with disabilities, the chronically ill and commuters are among those relieved to be working from home. They are angry that it took the coronavirus crisis to change the concept of what a workplace looks like.

Hands seen working on laptop with cup in foreground
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Gollnow

Civil rights lawyer Britney Wilson — like so many others — is working from her home. She is a New York City native and being able to stay put is something she sees as a privilege. Because those who still have to go to work are often at greater risk of infection. Many of them are essential, but low-income workers.

Wilson lives in a quiet residential area in Brooklyn - quite the opposite to where her office is located, in the heart of Manhattan. She joined the "National Center For Law and Economic Justice" in 2018. "I've been thinking, did I need to be making that commute every day? The last two months have proven: probably not," Wilson says.

Due to her cerebral palsy the lawyer commutes to work via the city's paratransit "Access-a-ride." It provides shuttle rides for people with disabilities and the elderly. When things go well, the drive to the office takes an hour. However, she often has to wait for the vehicle to arrive, and there might be one or two more passengers needing to be dropped off at completely different destinations.

"I'm saving a ton of time," said Wilson about working from home. "This crisis has fundamentally changed the way we think about work and the way that work is structured."

Britney Wilson
Britney Wilson is pleased to not have to commute every dayImage: Privat

Suddenly, there's empathy

Even after the stay-at-home orders end, employees would likely work from home more frequently than before, said Diane Hettinger, to avoid long commutes and to be able to better juggle business and private appointments. Hettinger works for Prudential Financial, an insurance and investment company listed as one of the largest firms in the country in the "Fortune 500" ranking.

What people thought of as "normal" was likely going to evolve, Hettinger told DW. "Things are changing. Our senior leaders have already said we're not going back."

Five years ago her firm appointed her as the head of an accommodation unit, where she works on providing solutions for individuals who have special needs. For example, she makes sure that videos are subtitled for employees or that all building entrances are accessible.

Read more: German labor minister calls for right to work form home

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Hettinger has felt that colleagues who did not use her services before are suddenly requesting help. Many had developed more empathy for what it is like to face a challenge. "Everyone in the organization has a greater sense of openness to what can be done by all people," said Hettinger and, in future, it would be easier to "grant those requests for individuals".

Companies running out of arguments

Even if infividual companies do not show more flexibility in future, the changes forced by COVID-19 have set precedents. Attorney Vincent White, who specializes in workplace discrimination, says that "we've already proven what we always argue. How can an employer argue that an accommodation for someone's disability to work from home is not reasonable? That's exactly the argument every attorney is going to make for the foreseeable future in years to come."

Apart from seeing new possibilities to defend his clients who are employees, White is also supporting companies in handling challenging situation that are arising while people work from home: What do I do when my employee shows up drunk to the online meeting? What if someone's wardrobe is inadequate? There might not be any sexual harassment cases at the office, but what about the office chatroom as a potential tool for abuse?

Charles-Edouard Catherine
Charles-Edouard Catherine: Switch to working from home was 'simple'Image: privat

All a matter of mindset

The coronavirus crisis makes everyday life more difficult for those who have no work or have lost it as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. People with disabilities or pre-existing conditions are facing even more challenges, especially when they are dependent on services and medical care that have been put on hold.

Read more: Coronavirus crisis changing Japan's work culture

The fact that the crisis is forcing companies to rethink what an appropriate place of work is, is the small silver lining. Suddenly, now that the majority of the US population is affected, employers have to demonstrate a flexibility that was unthinkable — even with the Americans with Disabilities Act in place, which is celebrating its 30-year anniversary in July.

"We have proven that we can change our habits. We can accommodate people much more than we thought," Charles-Edouard Catherine, special assistant to the director of the National Organization on Disability (NOD) told DW.

Catherine, who was born in France, now lives with his partner in New York City. He is blind and often uses touch to navigate. Hygiene precautions have made his everyday life a bit more difficult. The switch to working from home though has been easy. "It really was as simple as taking my laptop home." The biggest obstacle for people with disabilities or illnesses is not always doing the work, it's getting a job, he says.

Working from home

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