Human Resource Management for a Post-Covid World

This week we buried my father-in-law and I wrote a very difficult essay about loss. Every single death, in all contexts, covid or not, has been shaped by this pandemic. We can’t mourn, we can’t access the community we need to process loss, and the trauma of all these delayed and denied rituals will carry forward for years. I wrote:

When my mother was dying a few years ago, people traveled from around the country and we gathered around her in the hospice as her final weeks passed. Even the day after she slipped from consciousness, two more friends flew in from the East Coast, and we sat close, crying, but together. Those memories carry me today as I still wrestle with her loss.

On Thursday, ten of us get to stand outside in sub-zero weather for 15 minutes at a military graveyard as soldiers fire a salute and play taps. Then we’ll scatter back into the Minnesota winter.

I think there’s a lot more to say here about being open with our struggle, being ready to help each other, and more issues of emotional and mental health care. But today I want to focus on one issue: Human Resource Management. In fact, thinking about Bereavement Leave at work (and a related issue of excused absences for school) is what drove me to sit down and write the piece in the first place. I wrote:

We already struggle in our work-life culture to gain time away for bereavement, operating in managed human resource systems that measure our minutes and grudgingly yield a day or two of paid leave in the immediate aftermath of a death, and then only for an immediate family member. These bureaucratic systems are not ready for the coming cycles of delayed mourning.

And a similar problem will take place in our educational systems, where still too many teachers demand documentation of recent passing of a close relative to permit excused absences or extensions on assigned work. Some professors even joke about the “dead grandmother” excuse, not reckoning with the fact that grandparents do die. We’re going to have to shift our burdens of proof and timeliness.

Bereavement and excused-absence policies aren’t as deep a need as the spiritual and psychological burdens of delayed mourning, but it’s in these pragmatic policy spaces where inequalities emerge. My boss has made it clear that I can take as much time away as I want, and there’s no question that when we have our memorial in August, or November, or a year from now, my boss will let me go to that too. But having a good boss is not a system.

Having a good boss is NOT a system. I say this a lot in a lot of contexts (often around accommodation for disability), but have come back to it here. We have to build enforceable equitable systems across industries and conditions of work, from the field and factory floor to the C-suite (this is why I believe in federal labor rights rather than relying on good will). And the time for managers and regulators to start doing this work, prepping for a late 2021 and 2022 packed with delayed mourning, is now.

In fact, already, the process of filing out paperwork for caregiving leave and bereavement leave, something we’re dealing with right now, creates an excruciating administrative burden just when you’re at your most vulnerable. We can fix this.

Here is a tangible space where you, if you have any influence at your work, can make a difference. And for the many of you I know who are classroom instructors, we’re gonna have a lot more to say about #PostCovidPedagogy, as I’m calling it. But if somehow you haven’t already relaxed your demands for proof in the face of bereavement, if you haven’t already pre-emptively told your students that you intend to trust them … wouldn’t now be a good time to start?

We’re just at the beginning of being able to envision a post-covid world. It’s better than what we have now, but the challenges abound and I hope you’ll help me think through them.

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