13 Essential Workers Describe What Their Lives Are Like Right Now
As ordinances to shelter-in-place are announced, millions of Americans are working from home, if not laid off or furloughed. Many others are still going to work every day. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, service workers were on the frontlines—not of pandemic response, but of the fight to be considered worthy of a living wage.
Now, the same people previously deemed "unskilled laborers" are the most essential to the maintenance of services and provision of goods for Americans across the country. These include grocery store employees, mail carriers, construction workers, medical personnel, janitors, and caregivers. Many feel lucky to still have income, but most are afraid of exposing themselves to the novel coronavirus, especially without receiving hazard pay.
VICE spoke to 13 essential workers about their jobs and the pressures associated with being an essential worker during a global public health crisis.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some last names have been omitted to protect people's employment. All photos are courtesy of their subjects.
Demi, 23, Cincinnati, OH
I work at a large chain grocery store as a produce manager. Working during the COVID-19 crisis feels like a lot of pressure. People are desperate and scared, and all of a sudden, I’m on the front lines of that desperation. It feels unfair—I didn’t sign up to put myself at risk each day, not to mention, I’m immunocompromised due to a chronic illness. It’s become a high-anxiety workplace, which is not at all what the job has entailed for the past five years.
I’ve never considered myself an essential worker before, and I don’t think I’ve ever widely been considered one [by others]. The work that’s been considered unskilled, minimum-wage worthy work is now holding parts of society together. I’m making more than $15 an hour, but it doesn’t feel like any of us are properly compensated if we’re so essential that we have to risk our own health and safety.
A typical day now involves almost constant talk of what’s going on. Policies change every day between store hours and supplier updates. We’re having to make do with less, putting limits on how much people can buy, putting down tape markers six feet apart to comply with social distancing, all while still keeping ourselves safe. Part of my job has become reassuring people that that stuff isn’t running out and that they don’t need to panic.
The best thing customers can do for us is to maintain social distancing boundaries at the store. We have to be at work, and disregarding these precautions endangers us further. Understand that we are all as stressed and scared as you are.
Taylor Crumpton, 24, Oakland, CA
I’m a social worker at a drop-in center for homeless youth. After the Bay Area announced a "shelter in place,” I assumed that I would be granted the opportunity to work from home. However, because the population we serve is classified as "at-risk,” we're deemed essential workers. I've started to notice changes in my breathing, which is alarming as a person with asthma. When I called my healthcare provider and explained my symptoms, they informed me it was "heightened anxiety" due to me being a front-line worker. Although I'm working with additional pay, my employer has yet to provide testing services for front-line staff.
My shift is from 8 a.m–4 p.m. In the morning, I help with food preparation for the meals distributed to clients. After that, I provide general counseling and case management services to clients who reside at our shelter. There's no ordinary day—I could be helping a client enroll in local, state, and federal benefits on Monday, referring a client to a trauma center on Tuesday, admitting a client into psychiatric hold on Wednesday, etc.
Unlike medical professionals and first responders who are identifiable based on their work uniform, I'm hidden in plain sight because of my casual dress, so, at times, people classify me as a regular individual, not someone who is providing services to an at-risk population. It sucks—there's a lack of acknowledgement and respect for people who work in the homeless response system. In graduate school, our dean told my class to be prepared to be the "most disrespected person in the room" as a social worker. Working under COVID-19 has made me realize the truth of his statement.
Over the past two weeks, two of our clients have passed, and because of this virus; they're unable to be buried, which is heartbreaking. Please stay at home so others don’t have to go through this. If you're in a financially stable position, please call local nonprofits to donate cleaning supplies, so we can keep our facilities clean and reduce the impact of the germs we bring home to our families.
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