I work system support for a Fortune 500 retailer. Everyday I drive to the corporate campus where I solve the problems of retail employees across America. I am one of a very small group of specialists that “puts out fires” for our 1,000 locations.
In addition to my normal work, I also take calls regarding emergencies those stores encounter. These are rare. We get them once or twice a week. That was the case until March. Concerned calls began to trickle in more often around the 11th. Employees wanted to know what they should do because they felt sick or they may have come into contact with someone who was. Some seemed detached from the seriousness of the situation, but many were very worried.
Our answer was if you think it’s possible you may have been exposed to the virus or even to someone who may have been, you should stay home for two weeks. We assured them that the business would continue to pay them through their time of self-isolation. The unspoken assumption was that their job would be there for them when they returned.
I was one of these people who may have been two degrees separated from an infected individual. When I expressed this concern to management, they consulted with HR. The delay in hearing a decision from them leads me to think I was the first person in the company to raise this concern. I had taken off for a religious holiday on March 9th. Before I ever set foot back on campus the decision was made that since I could not prove I was a 0% risk, I should work from home for two weeks. Minnesota caught up on March 25 and told all employees who could do so to work from home: I was an early adopter.
One concerned caller told a dramatic story. He is an In Home installer and was scheduled to set up a customer’s home theater equipment.
He said, “When I walked in, there were empty flu medicine containers all over. I don’t want to sound racist, but the customers were Chinese. I know because I am trained in Kung-Fu and I’m really familiar with the culture. In the other room I could see luggage with tags still on them and other family members who were talking to each other in Chinese.”
“Did you leave or stay to do the work?”
“I stayed to do the job I was scheduled to do and left.”
Within the next couple days, an announcement was made that we were stopping all In Home services. This was a huge blow to our profits, but the company was not willing to put our employees’ health at risk.
Another caller to the Emergency Hotline was a General Manager calling to get guidance regarding what to do about an employee who was going to have to stay home for two weeks. He and I discussed the possibility of stores closing altogether due to exposure. He told me some inside information that if it continued to get worse, the stores may all transition to curbside pickup for online purchases only. This would mean fewer associates would be needed in store and everyone would be adopting new skills. The later implementation of this would soon completely change the type of work I would do until things go back to normal. Who knows when that will be.
Our founder instilled in our organization a core value to “Learn from challenge and change.” He did not anticipate how much that value would be tested when he opened his first store in 1966. The success of our company was born from disaster. We remained a small retailer until June, 1981 when a tornado devastated our store in Roseville, MN. Our founder took that opportunity to have a Tornado Sale and ensure that customers got the best buy possible. We moved through our inventory and turned a profit. We changed our strategy when the challenge came and emerged stronger than ever. This current challenge is at least as big as that day in 1981. Once again, another natural disaster. Now instead of our motto of “Tornado Tested” we were being “Corona Tested”.
Remember that name. I don’t know him. I’ve never met him, and never talked to him. At the time I got the call, he was employed in one of our distribution centers.
“Emergency Hotline. May I start with your employee number?”
“I don’t have one. I’m calling for my dad.”
Normally we wouldn’t handle a call from someone who we don’t employ, but I could tell from her tone of voice I should make an exception. I took her father’s information and asked her what had happened.
“I called the warehouse, but they told me I should call you. I’m really sorry my dad couldn’t call. I’m with him at the hospital. They’ve put him in a coma.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Two weeks ago, he took off sick. Then he was admitted for pneumonia. He was tested and came back positive for Corona.”
Before we ended the call I told her that I would pray for his recovery. She thanked me genuinely.
I took a moment to collect myself and sent a message to my teammates.
“Tell your family you love them everyday.”
On March 22nd, the prediction came true: we announced the transition to curbside pickup only. Because these purchases would all need to be made online, our order support team at our 888 number was overwhelmed with calls. Customers were waiting hours to talk to someone. I soon received word that I would be receiving one day of intense training and then be put on the Purchase Support team. This meant I would be taking customer calls to lighten the load. I’ve had to learn a completely new set of skills in a very short time and had to jump right in and get to work. It is a small thing compared to the many employees who have now been furloughed not knowing for sure if they will be scheduled to work in the near future or at all. It has been a challenge, but change is how we respond. We adapt and we survive. I’m just grateful to have a job while so many are losing theirs. I am thankful that I have my health.