The news these days is dominated by stories of how lives have been disrupted from the global pandemic. The poor, who in many countries lack adequate health care resources, have been hit hard, with higher rates of infection and deaths from COVID-19. The elderly, more susceptible to severe effects of the virus, suffer deeper isolation, whether they reside alone in their housing or in assisted living facilities without the normal visitation rights. The recession following the outbreak has plunged many households into poverty. Waves of evictions of renting households are now taking place.
Yet at the same time, many other families maintain their jobs and their income, but are teleworking, limiting their social contact, ordering supplies and food online. They, of course, suffer from the same social isolation and anxieties about risk to their health. Like all households, if COVID-19 strikes a member they experience all the disruptions attendant. But, save that event, their lives are diminished only in that their social interactions are limited.
The lesson learned is that physical offices act to leaven differences among employees. At work, they share the same facilities; they share administrative support practices; they share the same internet connectivity; they have standardized work spaces; the attention of all sharing space is devoted to the work activities. The work environment is designed to support focus on the tasks of the organization.
In March, many organizations quickly morphed into virtual organizations, with few or no employees working in the physical spaces of the organizations. The individual workers often found themselves in a home with others who formerly would be out of the house. The leavening features of work sites were absent. Households found themselves together 24/7. This included spouses/partners, but also children and elderly parents. For some, this has actually enriched their lives, renewing spousal ties and bonds within the household.
But, it is the multi-generational households that are suffering — a teleworking employee who has young children at home because child care facilities are closed; one who has school age children who need to be home schooled in the face of closed or imperfect virtual schools; one with an elderly householder who normally would be cared for by visiting care providers; one who lives with partners with health impairments. The expectations of work organizations have generally assumed that these household obligations would produce only minor and infrequent difficulties to conduct one’s job. Consistently applied work expectations are common.
This affects Georgetown. While all staff with these attributes face disproportionate impacts of the pandemic, recent research provides quantified evidence for faculty. There is clear documentation that the research productivity of women faculty members has dropped much more than that of male faculty since the pandemic began. I have no doubt that the same would apply to other university staff, if we had comparable statistics. Given the current normative behaviors in our society, women are spending more time on care duties in multi-generational households. This has harmed their work performance during the pandemic.
The university has acted to help, increasing support for all staff to $3000 for home care cost support. This is important but, admittedly, the support does not eliminate the inequities in the suffering from the pandemic. Unfortunately, the university cannot reverse the closure of schools, day care facilities, and elder care services. While we all have hopes that the pandemic will end soon, we must acknowledge that its disproportionate effects will extend beyond the pandemic.
Our community must continue to focus on how we can address these ongoing effects over the coming years. Identifying multi-year strategies to support the careers of those in our community disproportionately suffering the effects of the pandemic will require great wisdom and creativity. The benefits of doing so, however, can strengthen the University for the long run.