Making Workplaces ‘Safe,’ and Weird

“The back-to-work issue is going to be huge,” Natasha said in our conversation. “This is going to be the focus of my coverage for the rest of this year.”

Shira: We want workplaces to screen us for illness, right?

Natasha: Yes, but some technologies — thermal temperature scanners are a big one — are unreliable as heck. Temperatures are elevated for many reasons, and up to 25 percent or more of people infected with the coronavirus don’t have a fever or other symptoms.

Public health experts say those flawed temperature screenings may mistakenly make employees feel safe, so they may not wear masks as much.

Then what health-screening tools should employers use?

The public health experts I spoke with said employers mean well, but they should stop ineffective fever screenings and pay for employees to be tested for the coronavirus.

Imagine if we tested workers weekly for free. People would still get infected, and you’d still want to figure out who else might have been exposed at work. But frequent testing could make much of this workplace technology moot.

But testing is limited. Isn’t flawed workplace screening better than nothing?

Maybe. But if the technology perversely increases your chance of catching the virus because people have a false sense of security and don’t take precautions, then you might not be OK with it.

Another issue is transparency and choice for workers. Maybe people feel comfortable with their bosses taking their temperature, but what if businesses later use similar technology to identify employees at risk for heart disease? National coordination on best practices for workplace screening would be helpful.

What else worries you about these workplace screenings?

There’s going to be two-tiered treatment. Service and blue collar workers likely will have no choice but to put health-monitoring apps on their phones and agree to other screening technology that might not work. And office workers will get more systemic changes like fancy air purification systems and no-touch elevators scheduled to stop automatically on certain floors.

Life in an office will be strange.

Yeah, and it’ll be a colossal job for employers. Maybe people will work in shifts to limit the number of people together at once. Imagine the building changes: contactless doors and elevators, different air circulation. And if everyone is isolated in plexiglass cubicles, what’s the point of going to an office at all?

What would it take for you to feel comfortable taking the New York City subway and going back to our office?

A coronavirus vaccine. Seriously. See you in 2022.

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Last week we asked readers who don’t have access to fast internet to tell us how it affects them. Hundreds wrote in, expressing frustration and fury. Here is a selection of the responses, which have been edited.

Our only option is to connect to the internet through satellite. We often experience poor connectivity, dropped calls, jerky video stream. Everything goes south when the weather is poor. It is impossible to schedule a meeting that relies on the internet with a high degree of confidence that things won’t go awry.

Monitoring data usage is as tedious as counting calories — we inevitably fall short of our quota each month. Once the cap has been reached, the service drops to dial-up speed. Hit a key, get up, take the dog for a walk, come back and see if the screen has loaded. — Ginger Cushing, Centreville, Md.

I am a music teacher, and I’m now trying to manage private lessons and classes online. I can teach online IF the person at the other end has high-speed internet, but not to someone whose internet is the same poor quality as mine. — Lynette Westendorf, Winthrop, Wash.

Even within communities, we are seeing a classic “haves” and “have-nots.” In our community, we are fortunate to have 25 Mbps because we are near a neighboring town border with better service and our provider was able to “push” some of that to us. We are reluctant to tell anyone, as most of the rest of the town’s residents struggle with 3-9 Mbps (think dial-up speed). — Peter Bergh, Sandwich, N.H.

We are not able to access any streaming programs on any service like Netflix, Amazon, etc. It makes for a very boring stay-at-home situation. We are in our 80s and would benefit greatly if we had access to a fast reliable internet connection. — Marji Fuller, near Hastings, Mich.

Like poor folks everywhere, we have gotten so beaten down by terrible service we rarely bother to complain anymore.

I have lost renters three times because the internet was too slow for them. (Though I say it in my Airbnb listing, they can’t believe the sordid reality when they get here.) — Nan Richardson, Barton, Vt.

I live in rural Arkansas and currently teach English courses at the local community college. We have extended submission options and deadlines, recommended apps for students to use their phones to submit work, and expanded the Wi-Fi so students can complete and submit work from the parking lots. I changed my due dates to once a week so students only have to make that drive once a week.

While they are still expected to complete their work, I do make an effort to consider their obstacles. I’ve taken photos of handwritten work. I’ve delivered books and homework to students with car trouble. I’ve driven to students’ homes to take photos of their work on their laptops because while they may not have internet, they did complete their essays on their computers.

The playing field is never equal, but we should always strive to get it there. — Mysti Gates, Polk County, Ark.

  • Robot-driven cars are on ice: Coronavirus safety measures are stopping driverless cars from road tests since they can’t have a pair of human minders. And money is drying up to fund the very expensive technology. Driverless cars seemed around the corner a decade ago. Now they seem further away than ever, the Times reporters Cade Metz and Erin Griffith write.

  • (Whispers: It’s not the virus. It’s you.) Do you know there’s an app called Quibi? With video entertainment delivered in short bursts? No? Exactly. Quibi spent a gazillion dollars and still couldn’t get many quarantine-bored people to watch its shows. One of Quibi’s bosses told my colleague Nicole Sperling that it’s the coronavirus’s fault.

  • Trade your yeast for avocados: Bartering is back, with a 21st-century twist, the Washington Post writes. People on Facebook, NextDoor and Twitter are bartering goods they have in ample supply for those they lack. Bartering keeps people out of crowded stores, fills gaps in goods that are hard to get, saves money and helps our friends and neighbors in a crisis.

Andrew Cotter, the Scottish sports announcer, has brilliantly unleashed his play-by-play skills on our more mundane, sheltered lives. This video conference call with his doggies is his best work yet.

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at

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