My wife and I were in self-imposed exile from the rest of humanity for thirteen months.
My wife has MS. Hers is the relapsing-remitting type, just like President Jed Bartlett had on The West Wing. Some of the medication she takes weakens her already compromised immune system. A doctor in Little Rock, Arkansas, told me—way back at the end of March 2020—that if I continued to work as a postal clerk at the window, where I had to deal with the public eight hours a day, I would need to quarantine myself from my wife.
Since this wasn’t a viable option to protect ourselves from this scary virus that was just beginning to spread across the US, I decided that our wisest course of action would be to cut off all contact with everyone for a while. This included other family members, unfortunately, although we were able to keep in communication through cell phones and video chats.
This also meant that I couldn’t go to work. Our family doctor wrote out a work excuse that had a RTW date of September 2020. Surely, we’d be on the other side of this thing in six months.
It is shockingly easy to become a hermit in this day and age. We had started curbside pickup at Sam’s Club and Kroger even before we had heard of COVID-19. Plus, through Amazon Prime, we have a lot of everyday supplies delivered to our doorstep. In a pinch, we could pick up fast food meals at relatively safe drive-thru windows, or use Door Dash or GrubHub.
I don’t think the US Postal Service was happy about my decision. Is it really a medical leave when you’re doing something preventative? Because my absence was excused by my doctor, they did nothing.
Every month, the number of infections and deaths kept rising, including in our county. Things went from scary to really scary very quickly. Meanwhile, the country was in the grip of a social and political crisis. And, those voters who chose not to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 began to seem very smart. We quickly learned that denial and assigning blame was the worst defense against the virus.
September came around and things looked worse than ever. My doctor’s office adopted a new policy of not giving work excuses due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they issued a couple of “high-risk exposure certificates” for my wife and me. Sharon, because of the MS. Me, because of diabetes. While only one percent or less of infected people were dying (still a lot of people), my wife and I were firmly in that age bracket and underlying health conditions group that were at highest-risk for complications. I scanned these documents and attached them to the monthly email I sent to my postmaster telling her I wasn’t coming back to work yet.
The postmaster stopped replying to my monthly emails, which was slightly troubling. But, I kept receiving my check stub in the mail (with no money on it, of course) and every few months I’d get a bill for my health insurance, since I was earning nothing to deduct from.
In December 2020, just a few weeks before Christmas, I received a certified letter from the post office that essentially said that they were within their rights to put me back on the schedule. If I didn’t report to work for five days after I appeared on the schedule, I would be terminated.
I wrote another email telling my postmaster—and a nurse in Little Rock who was now being copied on all correspondence between me and the USPS—that because my wife’s underlying conditions hadn’t changed, and the COVID-19 stats were increasingly dire, I wouldn’t be back to work until we were both vaccinated and the infection rate began to slow. I realized that my absence had caused a hardship for my co-workers, for which I was genuinely sorry, but I needed to protect my wife.
Once again, I received no reply from anyone.
I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It seemed reasonable to expect to be told that I no longer had a job to which to return. The weirdest part of the whole thing was that I wouldn’t have blamed them for terminating me. Prior to the pandemic, I could never imagine a situation like the one I found myself in. People who don’t come to work usually don’t get to keep their jobs.
I was convinced that I had done the right thing, and I was willing to face the consequences of my actions.
Also, no follow-up certified letter telling me that I was fired.
Three additional months passed. I kept receiving check stubs. USPS continued to dun me for my insurance premiums, which I continued to pay even though neither of us saw a doctor or dentist for an entire year. The insurance did help defray some of the cost of our prescriptions, of course. Worth it.
We were finally able to get vaccinated in April. Both doses. I got my first real haircut in a year. I had my car serviced. I got a semi-clean bill of health from my doctor. I sent an email to the postmaster letting her know that I planned to report back to work on May 3, 2021.
Again, no reply.
It’s not difficult to become a bit paranoid in these situations. My wife and I talked about the very real possibility that I was returning to work only to be officially terminated. My mind was constantly running scenarios in which this happened, and I had decided that I would fight it if it came to that. I was prepared to contact my union president and lawyer.
While I didn’t blame them if they wanted to fire me, I also couldn’t blame myself for deciding to not go gently into that good night. I believed I was on the side of the angels in this matter. These were exceptional circumstances and I believed my “essential worker” designation was overstated.
I punched in to begin my shift on May 3rd, at eight-thirty in the morning. The postmaster was off that day, but other supervisors in the building told me that I had a list of computer training courses and recertification tests that I needed to take before I could return to the window. I knocked those out in about a day and a half. I put my till into the register for the first time in thirteen months during the afternoon of Tuesday, May 4th. Star Wars Day.
My postmaster came in and told me that she was very happy that I was back.
I found out that, during my absence, four other clerks I work with most often at the window all got sick with the virus over the winter season. Three had relatively mild cases of COVID-19. The third had to be hospitalized for a week, and was back on light-duty when I came back. She was still carting an oxygen tank around with her until this past week.
I don’t want anyone to misunderstand what I’m about to write.
I hate that my co-workers all got sick. I especially hate that one of them has had a particularly rough time of it. I would never wish anything bad to happen to any of them.
At the same time, I feel vindicated. If I had been there, I would have gotten it, too. And, I would have carried it home to my wife.
I’ve been back at work for three weeks now. While I don’t believe my fears of being terminated were entirely unfounded, I’m happy that they didn’t come true. It feels like I never left now.
Things aren’t back to normal. Maybe they never will be now, until a couple of additional generations pass and everyone forgets. I have a clear plexiglas shield in front of my register, and I’m still wearing a mask. At least I am when the customer in front of me is wearing one. A growing number of people are opting to not wear them, including some of my co-workers.
The pandemic isn’t over yet. But, things are beginning to look up. My mood has improved considerably since returning to work. It feels comforting to get back to familiar routines. It also feels nice to actually be earning money again.
2020 was my blip year. Now I am back. To a new reality.