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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

On the Ethics of Returning to Work—or Remaining There

crowd of healthcare workers wearing medical mask

crowd of healthcare workers wearing medical mask

Irina Raicu
Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Irina Raicu is the director of Internet Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Is it time for most of us to return to our workplaces? Before we do, we need to address what we owe to those who never stopped working—and who didn’t get to work from home.

Santa Clara County, in which Santa Clara University is located, was an early hotspot for coronavirus infections; it was also among the first to implement a shelter-in-place order. We have been under versions of it since March 16th. Much has been written about the role of the internet in this time of social distancing, uncertainty, fear, and valiant efforts to fight against the pandemic. For some of us, the internet has been a means to continue our work and maintain our jobs. Others haven’t had that choice.

The reliance on the internet for work, shopping, socializing, and more has also led many of us to reflect (longingly) on our offline experiences. We need to be careful not to overgeneralize based on those.

In the suburbs of Santa Clara County, for example, six feet apart is a lot closer than many of us get to our neighbors on regular days. For the past weeks, I have watched entire families taking walks around the neighborhood together, while maintaining social distancing; walkers, joggers, and cyclists nod or wave or say “hello” to others going by. The restrictions on movement are actually making my local community more visible.

At the same time, essential workers might not have the luxury of walking with their families and smiling at their neighbors; they are busy, in person, in hospitals and supermarkets, in cars transporting delivery orders, and lots of other workplaces. Many of them still don’t have the protective equipment required to keep them safe. They worry about getting sick and then potentially infecting their family members.

In my neighborhood, during this shelter-in-place period, time outdoors has become precious. Seeing the sky, watching the birds or flower petals fly by, feeling a breeze, all feel like special blessings.

But there are field workers who might be wishing for more time indoors these days. Even in California, many of them are still ill-equipped to protect themselves and their families from the virus. Many don’t have health insurance, either. They’re helping feed all of us; without them, there would be no conversation about others returning to work.

Another offline experience that many of us are longing for is human touch: an indispensable part of our lives. Now that we’re not supposed to touch people, I want to do it all the time. 

On the other hand, I think about doctors and nurses who are constantly touching strangers these days, working to save people who are sick and vulnerable and in the direst need. They might wish for a little more space, a little more distance. Many of them are still not protected enough, either. In a recent show, John Oliver highlighted a brief interview with an EMT who explained that he really appreciated the thanks and the free pizza that he’d been getting from grateful citizens, but that he would rather have a living wage and health benefits. A recent article in the New York Times described the plight of a doctor who had died of Covid-19; she had been the sole breadwinner in her family, and her family members were about to lose their health insurance, 30 days after her death.

At the ethics center where I work, we encourage people to use a variety of ethical lenses in order to evaluate potential actions and make better decisions. One of those lenses is the fairness or justice approach, which might well lead us to considering a few modest proposals:

  1. Any company that wants to run multimillion-dollar ads praising its employees for their heroism in their roles as essential workers should first have to certify that those employees are being provided with appropriate personal protective equipment.
  2. Any undocumented farm workers who are now carrying letters deeming them “essential” should immediately be granted legal status (for them and their family members, who also bear the risks and burdens associated with the ongoing farm work).
  3. Funds should be set aside, by government as well as business and nonprofit entities, to guarantee that any EMTs and people working in hospitals and clinics treating Covid patients do have health insurance coverage, for themselves and their immediate family members—and that the coverage would continue for family members even if the workers themselves lose their lives in the battle with Covid.

It might be too early to talk about the ethics of returning to work, when we have yet to properly address what we owe to the people who have been at work all along, throughout this pandemic.


May 1, 2020