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COVID-19

A year later, Marketplace reflects on life and work during the pandemic

Marketplace Staff Mar 15, 2021
Collage by Katherine Wiles/Marketplace

About a year ago, we asked some of our hosts, reporters and engineers to create videos of their work-from-home setups: the closet converted into a studio, the pizza box “On Air” sign made to ward off noisy children, the roommates kicked out of the living room. When the economy first shut down, and many Americans started working remotely, no one could predict how long the pandemic would last or how many lives would be lost. 

As of this writing, 107 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, and some states have started to reopen. The Biden administration is promising that all adults in the U.S. will be eligible for a vaccine by May 1.

To mark the anniversary of our economic and social shutdown, Marketplace staff members reflect on what has changed since they recorded their videos. 

David Brancaccio, host, “Marketplace Morning Report”

A year (and counting) working from home with social distancing bordering on social isolation has reinforced two ideas for me that are like the poles of a magnet, positively and negatively charged. 

First the positive pole: I realize I have been in training for this year of working from home for much of my career. When I was the London correspondent for Marketplace in the early 1990s, I worked from home with babies underfoot. Any communication with colleagues was by telephone and fax (even email was not yet standard). 

More recently but still in the Before Times, the “Marketplace Morning Report” was me speaking into a microphone in a New York City studio complex with an engineer and director in Los Angeles and correspondents who knows where — London, Washington, Shanghai? True, my producer, Meredith, was alongside me, but my boss for this job has always been 2,800 miles away. 

This bizarre year broadcasting from my basement (admittedly situated conveniently next to my workshop for building high-powered flying model rockets) also recalls for me my coast-to-coast reporting trip to explore technological unemployment, “Robot-Proof Jobs.” For that solo trip for Marketplace by car over six days from the Atlantic to the Pacific, I had set the following ground rule: technology only, no interactions with live humans. I had found a chain of hotels where you check in with a machine that spits out the room key. For almost a week, no co-workers, no live chats even with my spouse, Mary. How alienating and weird was that back in 2012?

I concluded at the time that the experience was not at all strange because I had already been practicing living a life like a solo astronaut on a Mars mission because of all our electronic communications. How often had I routinely interacted with friends beyond social media? Not that often. So, good, I was as ready as I could be for working all by my lonesome when the pandemic came.  

Something negatively charged about working from home for a year is this: I have been feeling a sense of deep loss that I have lost touch with my co-workers with whom I used to hang out when I anchored from Marketplace’s New York bureau. I really like these people, and we would get egg-and-cheese sandwiches on a perfect baguette across the street. We’d sneak over to a speakeasy with good coffee around the corner. Throughout the early months of the pandemic, I would call my gang on the phone, find out how they were holding together. 

Every Thursday, we did some carousing via a Zoom cocktail happy hour. I worried about my colleagues, some living alone in small Brooklyn apartments. A year later and there are no more Thursday Zoom cocktails. We generally no longer call each other. It’s like camp came to an end, and the friendships of the summer simply ghosted into oblivion. The emails, Slack messages and texts have gotten much more transactional. If we need something work-related, we communicate, but my co-workers are no longer as front and center in my thoughts. And that is a painful forfeiture. 

For those who say to me, chirpily, that at least there’s no hour-and-a-half commute back home every afternoon, I have a quick answer: maybe so, but at a big-ticket cost. As of this writing, the pandemic has meant I have not been able to see two of my children in person for over a year and one more child in more than half a year. All are adults who live time zones away. My best pal, who lives five hours away, lost his wife in December, and I haven’t been able to hang out with him. I love making journalism for people. I appreciate that I still have a job. But a year under these conditions has been asking too much of all of us.  

Robyn Edgar, audio engineer

It’s hard to believe that a whole year has already gone by. A lot has changed since I recorded a video of my work-from-home setup to share on Marketplace’s social channels. Workflows have become smoother — a few weeks into working from home, work was difficult. I was still adjusting to life outside of an office with less-than-ideal infrastructure and a much smaller desk. But over the course of this year, I’ve gradually made adjustments to the way I approach my job alongside the rest of the team to find a better balance. I’ve also upgraded my setup so that I’m not in such a small, cramped space (although I do have a vocal booth in my living room now to record voice-overs, which takes up considerable space).

Another major change was that I left the city to spend time with my family. I moved into the apartment above my parents’ garage temporarily and am enjoying getting to spend more time with my younger siblings. I usually only get to see them in person a couple times a year, so being home has been really special.

I’ve also found myself feeling less and less inclined to go back to commuting two hours a day to get to an office. You don’t realize how much you can do with that time until you get it back. Working from home has allowed me to develop a better morning routine, cook healthier food and start exercising more consistently. I’m hoping that no matter what the future holds, we can carry forward some of the takeaways from this year in the way we approach work.

Jennifer Pak, China correspondent

China was the first to enter a pandemic lockdown, in January 2020. At the time, I was lucky if I ran into more than a dozen people on the streets in a day. I relied on the radio to gauge public sentiment. 

Luckily, the Chinese government got the coronavirus under control, and the stay-at-home orders lasted only a few months. Now, the biggest challenge is getting people to agree to be interviewed. The blame and counter blame between China and the U.S. on who is responsible for the spread of the virus has led academics, experts, businesses based in China to be even more wary about speaking to foreign media. Those who do speak to us may be contacted by the police. As the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China has documented in its latest report, media freedoms are rapidly declining during this pandemic. By the way, the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismisses these claims and says what officials here oppose are ideological prejudices against China and fake news in the name of “press freedom.”

Marielle Segarra, senior reporter

It’s strange watching this video. On the one hand, I live in New York City, and things were so awful here at that time. Partly because we didn’t know much about the virus and we had no hope of a vaccine anytime soon. But looking back at this, I also feel like I was naïve. I had no idea how long this would go on and how much it would change our world.

I cover retail and consumer psychology, and to me, the beat is ultimately about how we live. We live differently now from a year ago, and that means we shop differently too. Furniture sales have gone way up. Sales of clothing and shoes, way down. Many of us are reconsidering our habits, like wearing makeup or buying takeout for lunch every day. All of these changes have created winners and losers in the economy.

It’s been a weird year to be a reporter because, like it or not, we are part of the story. We’re going through many of the same things as our listeners; looking for boundaries between work and home, deciding what risks we’re comfortable taking, coping with feelings of isolation and hopelessness, trying to secure vaccine appointments for our parents. This year more than ever, I see story ideas wherever I go. Or wherever my mind goes, because, let’s face it, I haven’t really been going many places.

It’s harder than ever to tell those stories because we’re much less likely to interview people in person. So we’ve experimented — asking sources to record audio diaries, for instance. When I  do go out into the field, there’s more preparation involved. Where will I meet the interviewee? Is there enough space to socially distance? Can we do the interview outside? Not if it’s snowing. So yeah, I’m looking forward to the spring — and to a time when everyone who wants a vaccine can get one.

Molly Wood, host, “Marketplace Tech” and “Make Me Smart”

I had been working from home for three years before the pandemic arrived, so in some ways, in the early days, I felt like things hadn’t changed much for me at all. It definitely wasn’t as dramatic as it was for people whose officemates and commutes and daily interactions with co-workers up and disappeared. I was handing out advice like “buy AirPods” and “get a yoga ball to sit on” like candy. 

But that feeling didn’t last long – for one thing, all the meetings I used to have as phone calls suddenly required me to be camera-ready for Zoom! Work had definitely changed, and people were having a hard time adjusting, and even though I’d been working at home, all my schedules still changed – not least of which because “Make Me Smart” all of a sudden became a daily show (and daily therapy). But even so, when I thought things would only last a few months (full disclosure: I never thought we’d close up shop for two weeks and then go back, but I definitely thought we’d be back on track by summer!), everything took on sort of a cheerful, “work hard and get through it together” sort of buckle-down feeling. I pooled resources with neighbors to get veggie boxes from local farms, we pitched in on orders from local butchers to stock our freezers, I developed a little barter system with my local family when I had sugar but they had birthday candles. I bought a sewing machine and started making masks, and planted veggies in the backyard. We had team meetings on Zoom and had a fun exercise Slack channel. We had this!  

And then it just went on and on. My son was doing school from home, which did not go well, and hasn’t gone well all year. It’s been a part-time job to stay on top of missing assignments, late homework, and the myriad ways he’s supposed to get online, keep track of classes, upload work, and receive messages. It was clear that my co-workers were in the same boat. Everyone got tired and stressed, the laundry piled up, I couldn’t bear to cook anymore, I was too exhausted for exercise Slack, the veggies died because the season ended. 

New excitement came when I became another pandemic cliché: I bought a house! That was a nice distraction, despite the challenges of moving while masked and socially distanced. I also feel lucky to have had a consistent small pod of family. But I think I’m in the same position as almost everyone else right now, a feeling that a “Make Me Smart” listener identified as “channel fever:” when you’ve been out at sea and you’re coming home and you can see land, but you’re still hours or even days or weeks away from actually being there. It’s been a hard year, and I don’t think we’ll internalize just how hard until we’re out of the crisis and taking stock of the things around us (I still have an awful lot of meat in the freezer). But even the sight of land has given me some new energy. I planted winter veggies and actually have broccoli coming in, which I’m pretty proud of, and I dusted off the sewing machine and made a few masks for the first time since the move, which felt satisfying, if a little depressing that they’re still so necessary and for so much longer. I’ll still be working in my garage studio when this is all over, but at least I’ll be able to visit the office and see a bunch of faces sometime soon. It’ll feel different, for sure.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

Give me a snapshot of the labor market in the U.S.

U.S. job openings in February increased more than expected, according to the Labor Department. Also, the economy added over 900,000 jobs in March. For all of the good jobs news recently, there are still nearly 10 million people who are out of work, and more than 4 million of them have been unemployed for six months or longer. “So we still have a very long way to go until we get a full recovery,” said Elise Gould with the Economic Policy Institute. She said the industries that have the furthest to go are the ones you’d expect: “leisure and hospitality, accommodations, food services, restaurants” and the public sector, especially in education.

What do I need to know about tax season this year?

Glad you asked! We have a whole separate FAQ section on that. Some quick hits: The deadline has been extended from April 15 to May 17 for individuals. Also, millions of people received unemployment benefits in 2020 — up to $10,200 of which will now be tax-free for those with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000. And, for those who filed before the American Rescue Plan passed, simply put, you do not need to file an amended return at the moment. Find answers to the rest of your questions here.

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