A series in which people across the U.S. offer firsthand perspectives about how social issues impact their real lives.
Since the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, reached the United States, it has been clear that our country is not ready for a public health crisis of this magnitude. Without universal healthcare or guaranteed paid sick leave, service workers, gig workers, the elderly, and the immunocompromised are facing a potential disaster.
Some companies are closing their stores and paying employees for all scheduled work through the closures. This is not the norm. People relying on their service, retail, or gig jobs are forced to choose between preserving their health and paying their rent. Without guaranteed paid sick leave, our Uber drivers, restaurant staff, and food delivery people continue to work among calls to self-isolate.
Service workers, gig workers, and hourly employees are left with a choice: Go to work and endanger yourself and others, or stay home and make no money. This choice becomes especially difficult for people who care for elderly or immunocompromised people either at home or at work. VICE asked nine workers who live with or care for elderly and/or immunocompromised people about their jobs, precautionary measures, and their ability to take time off.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some last names have been omitted for privacy.
Allie Kiekhofer, 28, Los Angeles, CA
During the day, I used to work at an elementary charter school as a one-on-one behavior aide until March 12th when our school closed as a precaution for COVID-19. They guaranteed pay for salary and hourly workers for at least two weeks, which is the current length of the closure.
On some weekends and days after my school job, I've worked (and continue to work) as an in-home personal care attendant (PCA) for a 25-year-old woman who has spinal muscular atrophy. I’m not an expert on SMA, but I know that she has very limited respiratory function. Just eating certain foods can give her a really bad cough. She also has a catheter, which I believe makes her immunosuppressed. I’m obviously also not an expert on COVID-19 and how it interacts with SMA, but I do know that it takes root in the lower respiratory system and disproportionately affects people who are immunosuppressed. I’m 28 with no underlying conditions—if I get sick, it will probably manifest as a cold. But if she gets sick, we both know it could be fatal.
I’ve been especially worried about bringing germs into her home. When school was still in session, I usually drove home, changed my clothes, and washed my face, hands, and upper arms or took a full shower, if I had time. I was about as careful as I could be, but I wondered if it was a mistake for me to be taking care of someone who’s immunosuppressed while I was working at a school.
Now that my school has closed, I have completely isolated myself from everyone except for my roommate, whom I rarely see anyway; the woman I work for; and anyone else who comes into her apartment (like her roommate, boyfriend, and other PCAs). I’m not even seeing my girlfriend of three years, and I don’t know when I’ll see her again.
When I arrive, I put my stuff in a certain corner of the client's house and wipe down things that I touch, like the doorknobs and my keys, right when I walk in. Not gonna lie—I’m really stressed out about the other caregivers [who share duties caring for my client]. I have no idea if they’re taking any precautions. I just picked up some shifts from someone else who got sick (unrelated to COVID-19), and I imagine I may be doing more of that. The woman I work for has told me that some of her other caregivers aren’t really taking precautions, which is so frustrating because I feel like it undoes my and her efforts. I’m really worried about her and don’t know if it’s even possible to keep the virus away from her, but I’m going to keep going to work, going straight back home, and staying as sanitized as I humanly can.
Eleanor Monahan, 30, Los Angeles, CA
Photo courtesy of Eleanor Monahan
I have worked for a woman named Jackie, who has a degenerative muscular disorder, since last year as one of several personal care attendants (PCAs) hired by the Department of Social Services. She needs to be extra careful protecting her respiratory system. We’ve been kind of joking about it because we can recognize the clear fear-mongering leading to people hoarding goods, while remaining aware of how social services might be affected. At the same time, it would not be good if Jackie contracted COVID-19, so the PCAs and I wash our hands and sanitize whenever necessary. The nice thing about working a low-paying government job for a nice person is that everyone really cares and wants to support Jackie. We’ll gladly do whatever it takes to keep her healthy and happy.
I don’t take time off work much. If I do, I make sure Jackie has adequate coverage, which means checking with her other employees in advance. There is allegedly a government service that is supposed to provide substitute PCAs in case of an emergency, but Jackie has contacted them in the past, and they have been no help. The current system through In-Home Supportive Services doesn't allow sick pay for in-home caregivers. If I had to self-quarantine, it would not be great. The financial stress it poses is more at the forefront of my mind more than the medical implications are. But we low-income people don’t really have a choice! We keep going to work, hoping for the best. Right now, I guess that just means I have to do everything I can not to have to self-quarantine.
Michelle Cole, 20, Apex, NC
Photo courtesy of Michelle Cole
I work at Namoli’s NY Pizzeria as the front-of-house manager. I interact with customers more than any other employees there. It’s a counter-serve restaurant, so I work the front counter and manage everyone else. I take orders at the POS (point of sale) system and over the phone, ring up customers, run food out to customers, clean the dining area and restrooms, bus dirty dishes, and deal with customers’ complaints.
I live with my 89-year-old great aunt. She’s had pancreatic cancer twice. Contracting COVID-19 might mean hospitalization for her, considering her age and weak immune system. This would also stop her from taking her daily walks, which help keep her healthy both physically and mentally. She would not be able to attend church, which she does four to five times a week. That would most certainly negatively impact her emotional state—that's where most of her socialization takes place, and she's extremely faithful.
Since the news of COVID-19 broke, we’ve washed our hands and used sanitizer much more frequently. To keep her safe, I also use a stylus when operating the POS system at work so I don’t have to touch it directly. After closing, I disinfect the POS system tablets, chairs, tables, and door handles, etc. I wash my hands every time I handle money, credit cards, or dishes.
If I’m too sick to go to work, there aren't PTO or work-from-home options—it's a restaurant. It’s basically, you show up and get paid, or don’t show up and don’t get paid.
Yessenia, 21, Garden Grove, CA
Photo courtesy of Yessenia
I work for a respite service/child care inclusion center in Orange County that works with kids with disabilities. One of the children I care for is a three-year-old girl who is immunocompromised. She currently can’t go out to places with big crowds due to the possibility of contracting COVID-19. If she did, it would be very bad for her health.
The staff is making sure not to go to heavily populated public spaces like concerts or amusement parks. If we do go to the store, we sanitize whatever we need to use—the shopping cart at a grocery store, for example, sometimes twice. I wash my hands multiple times throughout the day like I always have but am extra careful now not to touch my face. We could wear face masks if we wanted to, but I personally don’t. However, if necessary, I would go above and beyond my work’s policies due to the fact that it is crucial for the immunocompromised girl I care for not to get sick. It’s a scary possibility.
If I get sick, I don’t get paid when I take time off of work. Though my job would be secure, it would affect my financial situation in that I wouldn’t be getting paid at all in the case I have to practice social isolation or have to self-quarantine. This would, without question, affect my ability to pay my rent and bills.
Roslyn Talusan, 27, Toronto, ON
Photo courtesy of Roslyn Talusan
I'm a freelance writer and anti-rape activist, so I mostly work from home. I currently live with my parents and can’t afford to move out. They are both above retirement age. My mom underwent a stem cell transplant in 2017, so she's also immunocompromised. Up until this past weekend, I actually wasn't concerned about whether or not I was going to contract the virus, but when I thought about my parents, I got anxious. Regardless of whether or not I'd survive COVID-19, I'm not sure they would, and that terrifies me.
I've been going back and forth between Toronto and Austin, TX for the past couple of years to visit my long-term partner. Since I can't afford to move out of my parents' house due to an ongoing human rights case, this is the only way for me to get any space from them. I spend three to five weeks there every other month. I was actually supposed to be headed there to cover SXSW for work. It was cancelled, and my parents expressed concern for their own health, especially given that you can transmit COVID-19 without showing symptoms, so I didn't go. If I lived alone, that would be one thing, but we live in a small house.
Dave, 34, Ashburn, VA
Photo courtesy of Dave
I work at a veterinary hospital. We are corporate-owned but managed locally. I work with 10–15 coworkers on any given day, and I am in close quarters with clients five to 10 times a day.
Remote work isn’t an option, so if I’m sick, I need to take sick time. My vacation and sick time come out of the same paid time off. Since it’s early in the year, I could probably get by if I had to self-quarantine for two weeks or more, but since I have only two peers in my office, we would have significantly decreased capacity.
My partner is 29 and has Hashimoto’s disease (autoimmune hypothyroidism). She does not tolerate vaccines, and run-of-the-mill colds can make her too sick to work for weeks. I wish I could take more precautions to keep her safe. We are diligent hand-washers, and we do our best to maintain our health, but our household doesn’t function financially if we aren’t both working. We both serve people who commute inside the Beltway for work, and if I had the opportunity to avoid that for a few weeks, I would. My older kids’ school is closed and my youngest’s preschool is open--but we aren’t sending her. My partner and I are alternating and staggering our work schedules, trying to make some money while we can.
Taylor, 24, Long Beach, NY
I work at Lost at Sea as a waitress. I take the subway to the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to get to work. We are a small place, and I’m the swing server—I come in when no one else can because I'm in school. Usually, I'm the person they call when people are sick. There is no sick time or work from home, though my manager is as accommodating as possible, because his wife has an autoimmune disorder.
I live with my grandma, who’s 75. I feel like I'm more worried than she is. She is a smoker‚ she's had pneumonia a few times and gets bronchitis every few months. I'm worried she would need to be hospitalized if she contracted COVID-19, and I don't know how much insurance would cover as money is already tight for both of us. Not working would heavily affect my ability to pay my bills. Since I don't work often, every shift counts and my law school financial aid doesn't cover the cost of living in NYC. With school moving completely to remote classes, I planned to work more hours, but Long Beach has confirmed their first case, which might lead to restaurant closures, leaving me out of a job.
I told my grandma that if she didn't feel safe with me living with her, I would stay at a friend’s or go to my mom's—which is my plan as long as the MTA isn't shut down, but I just don't want to up and leave her. I try to not go outside.
I have a chronic illness, and though I'm not immunocompromised, I do feel under the weather more often than not. I'm very aware of my body and what's normal and what's not. If it was warmer out, I would be walking places instead of mass transit. But sometimes I don’t have another choice and will take mass transit because I can't walk because my chronic illness is flaring. Ubers aren't really in the budget at the moment.
I asked my grandma if her boss would set up her laptop so she could work from home. She works four days a week near Grand Central, and she’s taking all the necessary precautions.
I feel like I am more worried than she is. I lost a parent a few months ago, so I know my anxiety about this is higher than usual.
Jess, 31, Old Bridge, NJ
Photo courtesy of Jess
I work for Uber and UberEats, mostly as a delivery driver, traveling all over NJ. When I can, I look for freelance gigs, including taking surveys, doing data entry, and testing products in person.
It's convenient to be able to set my own hours, but time off isn't an option for me financially. I don't get paid time off or sick days. Having to take any sort of leave or isolate myself at home would be disastrous. My mother is on a fixed income and we're barely getting bills paid as it is. With student loan debt, car insurance, medication and deductibles, and my mortgage, it's a lot. I'm really worried about whether or not I'm going to be able to find work and what will happen if my mom or I get sick.
My mother is a 60-year-old stroke survivor who has a heart condition and is diabetic. The CDC said all of those conditions put her in the "higher-risk" group for serious complications, so she's been on edge and bracing for the worst. I have a sibling who is asthmatic and highly susceptible to severe respiratory illnesses, too, so there's a lot of stress all around.
Mom doesn't leave the house anymore except to see her main doctor. We're not really sure what else to do. I'm keeping hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes in my car, since I can't afford to stop working entirely—Uber is only offering paid time off if I'm diagnosed with COVID-19 or officially required to self-quarantine. I would prefer to stay home or further limit my contact with other people, rather than constantly be in and out of public places and around sick customers. Ideally, I'll find some more data-entry work. In the meantime, I have to keep driving and hope for the best.
Paige, 21, Kaysville, UT
Photo courtesy of Paige
I currently work for a married couple in their home. The woman I work for had a stroke about a year ago, and they pay my sister and I to stay in their house at night to get her ready for bed, help her use the restroom throughout the night, and get ready for the day in the morning. My sister and I rotate nights, so one of us is always there.
While I don't interact with a lot of people at work, I'm currently in nursing school. Usually, I'm interacting with hundreds of people at my campus while also doing rotations at hospitals in my area.
It is somewhat difficult for us to take time off of work, given that my sister and I are the only professional caregivers for this couple. My sister and I were able to join our family on a seven-night cruise leaving on February 29, and when we returned to port at Long Beach, we were unable to get off the ship for 24 hours while someone was tested for COVID-19.
While that passenger tested negative, my sister and I were unable to return to work for two weeks because our client was fearful of contracting COVID-19. If she did, she would be susceptible to a secondary infection, like pneumonia.
Because we are privately employed by this couple rather than a company, we are not offered paid sick time. I am a full-time student, and this job pays for the majority of my schooling, in addition to a small student loan. I had enough savings to survive two weeks without pay, but as more information was shared about COVID-19, our client asked us not to return to her home until this all "blows over.”
Being without pay indefinitely, I quickly asked for an extended amount on my student loan—enough money to survive for about two months with my bills and tuition payments. This nearly doubled my student loan. Additionally, I am no longer allowed to do rotations in hospitals for my schooling. While no official decisions have been made yet by the university, this may delay my graduation date, as there are a certain amount of clinical hours nursing students must complete to get their license. A delayed graduation date will only further lengthen the amount of time it will take me to pay off my student loan. I completely understand the fear that our client has of contracting the virus, or just getting sick in general. I understand, too, that working privately comes with its advantages and disadvantages, but as a full-time student, I simply don't have the financial resources to deal with emergent situations like this.
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