Working the Pandemic

42.6 million people — that’s more than a quarter of the total US labor force — have claimed unemployment benefits in the last 11 weeks.

Of those, 21.5 million remain without work. The Labor Department is about to release its nonfarm payroll report for May, and economists surveyed by Dow Jones are expecting a decline of 8.3 million and a 20.5% unemployment rate. That’s more than double the highest previous level since the Great Depression.

Even as all 50 states are in the process of reopening, joblessness is still crippling us.

And yet, as we’ve discussed before, a few, niche industries are enjoying tremendous growth, or at least remaining stable. Part of the problem, of course, is that jobs that allow remote work are few and far between. That may seem contradictory since so many tech companies are now switching at least a portion of their staff over to full-time distributed work.

But…what if you don’t work in tech? Most people don’t, which is something it’s easy to forget when you spend your days doing switch interviews and BDD. But if you’re a driving instructor or bank teller or pastry chef, there’s no transferring your role to remote.

Enter contact tracing. We’ve talked about that before, too, since it represents one of the best chances to slow the spread of COVID-19. Maryland, New Jersey, Colorado, Arizona, Washington, Georgia, and 35 other states are implementing tracing as a way to slow the spread of coronavirus as they reopen businesses.

But if you’re patient and have good critical-thinking skills (and don’t mind calling strangers all day) you can now make a pretty good living, from home, assisting in those efforts. A contact tracer in New York can make $57,000 with full benefits, which is nothing to sneeze at (sorry) when 21.5 million people are looking for work.

So how does it work? 

Tracers call everyone who recently came in contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19, conduct a verbal symptom check, and then refer them for testing. They tell the people they call that they have been exposed to COVID-19, but the identity of the infected party is kept strictly confidential.

They also provide instructions on how to quarantine.This breaks the chain of transmission, which is critical for the slowing of overall infection rates. And, perhaps most importantly for the soul on the other end of the line, tracers show kindness and empathy to folks who may be deeply frightened and confused. 

Johns Hopkins predicts the nation will need more than 100,000 contact tracers to conduct interviews over the coming weeks, and with epidemiologists suggesting a second wave in the fall, it’s hard to imagine that number won’t climb even higher.

We’ll level with you — it didn’t actually occur to us that this isn’t a new job, but of course it isn’t. Contact tracers have been doing their delicate, sensitive investigative work for decades. Contact tracing has a long history in public health, from managing the outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases in 1930s Scotland, to tracking smallpox infection rates, to its instrumental role in controlling tuberculosis. 

The difference is that the technique was used more in Europe and developing countries. And when it was used in the U.S., it was not to this scale. So this little known workhorse of a technique is not only reemerging to help control a global pandemic; it’s offering a glimpse of hope to at least a hundred thousand unemployed Americans.

Requirements for being hired as a tracer vary by state and even by county, so websites like this one have been set up to make the process easier.

What’s exciting about this is that we’re watching the best of tech — Apple/Google contact tracing systems — combine with the best of humanity — real empathy and understanding. We’re seeing a few new jobs when the struggle is real for so many. This is a long road, this pandemic. And it is far from over.

But we adapt. 

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