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Why Data Center Employees are Essential Workers in 2020

By: Devin Partida on November 30, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic peaked in many cities and countries around the world, a tradition began where people went outside and clapped to show gratitude for essential workers. Most people thought of health care professionals and grocery store workers as in that category. 

Those members of the workforce indeed put themselves at risk, allowing everyone else to avail of services that can't close. However, the workers who staff data centers are arguably just as necessary — albeit less visible than some other essential workers. 

Internet Usage Skyrockets

Modern society depended on the internet before, but the pandemic took usage to new levels. As of January 2020, the typical household usage was 320.1GB per month. Usage also peaked during nights and weekends. However, April's internet use statistics jumped 26% compared to the first month of the year. Although overall usage declined somewhat during May as governments began lifting stay-at-home orders, it remained higher than pre-pandemic levels. 

Many internet service providers and IT teams associated with online tools scrambled to increase their infrastructure and keep up with the surge. That shift also required data center employees to work around the clock to prevent outages of websites and internet-based services. They had an even more challenging job than usual, particularly as people relied on e-commerce sites to get what they needed without leaving home. 

A study found that online shopping levels during April and May 2020 were 7% higher than the totals for November and December 2019 — peak holiday shopping time. Many merchants anticipate the seasonal shopping uptick and increase their data center resources to accommodate it, but the novel coronavirus took the world off-guard. 

People also recognize that they need the internet more than ever. A survey from early April 2020 found that 53% of respondents considered the internet essential during the coronavirus outbreak. Another 34% viewed it as important, but not essential. 

People Become More Reliant on the Internet for New Reasons 

The physical isolation associated with COVID-19 also forced people to socialize and stay entertained differently. For example, Ben Gibbard, frontman of indie band Death Cab for Cutie, performed livestream sets every night for weeks in pandemic's early days. Thousands of people tuned in from around the world to watch live or later and feel comforted by soothing sounds.

Zoom — primarily a telecommunications tool for workplaces before COVID-19 — came under strain and security-related scrutiny as everyday people used the platform for everything from book club discussions to yoga classes. They wanted to maintain a healthy routine and safe connections with others, and online platforms made that possible. 

Many local governments also set out stipulations to let more people work from home. In Chicago, employers could not terminate or demote workers who stayed home to care for people ill with or quarantining due to COVID-19. Many companies urged their employees to work from their houses if possible, and some offered them the chance to do it permanently.

In one recent survey, 42% of people reported working from home all the time — compared to only 9% before the pandemic. Moreover, 19% said that COVID-19 caused them to work remotely for the first time. Many data center workers did not have that option. 

Employers associated with data centers put protocols such as temperature checks and staggered shifts in place to reduce the risks. That helped, but didn't remove the threat. Some employees had to take public transit to work, introducing another possible exposure point. Others who lived or regularly interacted with older or vulnerable people likely worried they might transmit the virus to loved ones due to continuing to work outside the home.

Keeping the World Operating in Unsettled Times

The COVID-19 pandemic affected people differently, but most would probably say they never lived through anything like it before. People expect natural disasters affecting states and regions — and data center workers play vital roles during those emergencies, too. The main difference with the coronavirus pandemic is it's a worldwide event. 

Health experts warn it could be months before trials identify a successful vaccine. Some say it may never happen, or the protection could be so short-lived that everyone will have to accept that COVID-19 will always be a part of life and not eradicated. These are undoubtedly uncertain times, but data center workers play vital roles in ensuring that people can at least count on internet connectivity. 


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