“I’m sorry, but we have to put you on unpaid leave for three months.”
That is not something any worker would want to hear, especially now.
But because of the impact COVID-19 had on the hotel industry, Park Hotel Alexandra had no choice but to put senior catering sales manager Cheryl Woo, 33, on unpaid leave.
“Honestly, I was expecting this to happen. I saw how the pandemic was affecting business. It was around mid-May when I got the news that I had to take a three-month furlough,” said Cheryl.
Cheryl was naturally worried since she wouldn’t be drawing a salary for those few months. Like everyone else, she had bills to pay.
“I went to my HR to seek help. I asked, ‘Hey, what alternatives do you have for me? Can I be redeployed to other departments or somewhere else?’” she shared.
A Month Later
Today, we find Cheryl wearing personal protection equipment (PPE) at one of the foreign worker dormitories in Singapore.
She has taken a temporary role as a swab assistant – A far cry from the corporate and wedding events she used to manage at the hotel.
Being an NTUC Job Security Council member, Park Hotel Alexandra was one of the thousands of companies that worked with NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) to help workers take on temporary jobs during the COVID-19 downtime.
“Through e2i, I was given a chance to be part of the Health Promotion Board’s [HPB] swabber team. I think it is a good initiative by the companies and e2i. Because it helps people who temporarily lost their jobs find an alternative – to be a swabber, a packer, you know, all sorts of jobs,” said Cheryl.
Training for the Job
However, the extent of Cheryl’s medical experience before COVID-19 was nothing more than plastering a bandaid on a cut.
She had to go through training at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) before starting her new role.
“The training was an eye-opening experience. The trainers at NYP taught us how to wear and take off the PPE in a proper manner. Before the training, I didn’t know I had to take off my gloves in a certain way, that I had to wash my hands in a certain way. They also taught us how to do nose and throat swabs correctly,” she said.
However, no amount of training could prepare her for the experience on the ground. Cheryl admitted she was very nervous on her first day on the job.
“I was nervous but also very excited. When I reached the site, I panicked a bit because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I supposed to do?’” she said.
Thankfully, her teammates were very experienced and guided her on the job.
Now, Cheryl can expertly insert a 6-inch-long Q-Tip into the nose cavities of hundreds of individuals a day to test for COVID-19, with the person tested feeling minimal discomfort.
Challenges on the Job
Speaking of discomfort, the heat build-up in the PPE suit is one challenge Cheryl said she must face every day on the job.
One of her teammates almost blacked out due to the heat, recounted Cheryl.
“We have to wear our PPE for a few hours at a time. It gets really hot, and sometimes you’re not in a shaded area – You’re at a construction site or a makeshift work area. We just need to hang in there, and you know, bite the bullet in the PPE,” Cheryl said.
Despite the challenges, Cheryl has no regrets and relishes her new role as an assistant swabber.
“It’s a very noble job to take on because not many people, I think, would want to be in direct contact with patients who might have COVID-19. I’ve seen so much compassion on both sides, be it from the people we’re testing or the swabbers. Some of those we were testing even offered us water to drink when it was a hot day. That surprised and touched me deeply,” said Cheryl.
Hopes for the Future
Like every worker who had taken on a temporary job during this downtime, Cheryl hopes her industry would recover soon and flourish so that she can continue her career at the hotel.
When asked what she missed most about her work at Park Hotel Alexandra, she said: “My colleagues, of course.
“I miss them a lot. When this COVID-19 thing settles, the first thing I would do when we go back to work is to give every one of them a big, big hug!”