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.
Lorena, 23, Flowery Branch, GA
I’m a barista at Starbucks, and it feels weird to still be working, because I honestly don’t see how my job is more “essential” than other jobs. It also makes me feel grateful that I do have a job and I’m not in a situation similar to friends and family who’ve lost work.
We keep the café locked, so, when we get there, we have to wait for one of the other employees to let us in. It’s not as busy, so there aren’t as many people working as there were before COVID-19. In an effort to keep us separated, there are no longer two people on drive-through. Another person will take orders on the café register. We have to follow stricter rules, such as washing our hands every 30 minutes and disinfecting surfaces every 30 minutes. We also have to wash our hands whenever we handle cash. Since we aren’t allowing customers into the café, we have an extra person there that does cleaning, and we rotate who that is throughout the day. It’s surreal—there’s a lot more downtime that we never had before. We also close earlier. As a closer some nights of the week, I had to change my availability to start coming in earlier to get the same amount of hours.
Though it’s stressful to think about being exposed, it makes me feel like I’m doing something for my community. People are really stressed out, so I try to be nice and maintain a little bit of normalcy while following guidelines to keep myself safe.
Ashley Percy, 31, Memphis, TN
I work for a water and sewage utility. Since I’m still under contract with a staffing agency, I have no vacation, no sick days, and no health insurance. When the city decided to issue their “safer at home” order, I was worried that I would lose hours and expressed my concerns to management. They told me I was more than welcome to either go on shift rotation-—working in smaller groups for fewer shifts as a precaution—or work normal hours until I completed my last five weeks on contract before moving to permanent employee status with benefits. It was a hard decision, but I have the health of my mother and grandfather to consider. Ultimately I decided to work the rotational shifts. So, I'll be losing income, but decreasing my virus exposure.
My day pretty much looks the same as before, but I am receiving a lot of calls from customers for payment arrangements with collections. I hate that we’re not doing more for our customers. We aren’t doing shutoffs for nonpayment at this time, but we’re still charging late fees that I think are completely unnecessary right now. I’ve had customers get upset with me because they’ve just lost their jobs and they’re scared. I don’t blame them at all, so I take it, and I strive to be as compassionate as possible. I grew up poor, so I know what it’s like to have collections call the house. I know what it’s like to have to fill up every possible container with water because the water is getting shut off on a Wednesday, but you won’t have money until Friday.
My advice for customers would be to set auto-draft payments, pay online, or over the phone. Most of what needs to be done can be done virtually, so please stay home and stay safe. Also, call your local and state reps and pressure them to end late fees right now. Pressure them to make us offer assistance plans or temporary free services. The absolute last thing I want is for someone to go without water service in the middle of a pandemic over a ten-dollar late fee. I'm trying to do the best I can because I really do care, but I’m scared too.
Shelly Stone, 48, Petersham, MA
I work at Athol Credit Union and I work on mortgage loans. I'm scared and wish I didn't have to go into work. Even though I'm not meeting with members, I am sharing space with 20 other co-workers. I'm glad I have a job and am getting a regular paycheck. But, honestly, I would prefer not to have to go into work.
Our branch is locked and closed to customers. Members can visit us in the drive-up, or call and speak with someone if they can't do drive-up, and we're pushing them to do mobile and online banking. I'm still processing loans, mostly mortgage refinances, and collecting paperwork from applicants via a secure dropbox, fax, or email. We can’t close mortgage loans because those have to be done in person. In the loan department, there is one person dedicated to late payments and collections, but we all get calls about it. We have a script and letter that we pass on to them to explain what they need to do to request deferment of their payments.
Members are a bit on edge, and some of them are not understanding of the delays and problems we're dealing with to try to keep everything running smoothly. There are folks that are not taking things seriously and are upset that the branch isn't open to foot traffic or that I won't meet with them to talk about a loan, or who get angry because their loan closing is delayed. A bit more patience and understanding would be better.
Jacquelyn Hedrick, 20, Chapel Hill, NC
I work as a nursing assistant at UNC Medical Center, a medical center associated with the University of North Carolina, where I'm a junior in undergrad.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have a steady and reliable source of income when so many are without. The nature of the essential service that my coworkers and I are providing is a source of anxiety, as we must provide direct patient care during a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Last Sunday, I was given one N95 mask to be used for the entire week. Typically, N95s are meant to be single-use in that you don it before entering a patient's room and doff it immediately upon exiting. However, we simply do not have the numbers of masks that we need for all of the personnel in our hospitals.
I work in different units of the hospitals each shift, based upon our needs, but I work in the Emergency Department most often. Our ED is divided into teams, and I most recently worked in Team D, which is designated for our less-acute patients but has been repurposed for patients who may have COVID-19, as it has isolation rooms with negative pressure.
The biggest change made by COVID-19 is the general sense of fear, dread, and anxiety that permeates the Emergency Department and most other units. We know that this is going to get much worse, and that we cannot adequately protect ourselves from becoming patients. Patients are much more anxious, and visitor restrictions have been very difficult for them to handle. This anxiety can lead to abuse of staff, and while it's understandable, it can still be hard for us to take.
Despite this, it's been morale-boosting to feel that NAs' contributions to the healthcare system are being recognized as essential on a broader scale. What is usually seen as unskilled labor, both within healthcare and outside of it, has now been deemed essential. This contradicts many of the narratives about low-wage workers that have been spun by our viciously capitalist society. I hope that when this is all over, this new understanding of our value to the world remains.
I beg anyone who reads this to stay inside, to practice social distancing, to wash their hands, and to shelter-in-place if possible. If the curve is not flattened, the PPE shortage in hospitals all over the country will prove deadly for those of us on the frontlines. Donate PPE or sew masks if you can. Contributing to mutual aid funds in your local communities will hopefully aid those in need in maintaining their health during the crisis and further limit the strain on our hospitals and healthcare providers.
Will, 45, Los Angeles, CA
I supervise the receiving warehouse for broadcast engineering at a television broadcast company in Los Angeles. Since being deemed essential, my feelings about work have been a mixed bag. I am incredibly grateful that I am still getting paid and don't have to worry about being furloughed or unable to pay rent. But I am deeply concerned that my commute—I take the bus and don't own a car—and the nature of my job increase my risk of exposure. That's a lot to carry around—my anxiety is through the roof.
It’s also deeply discomforting being called essential. I don't make a lot of money, and they don't offer hazard pay, so risking my health and that of my family in order to keep the broadcast on is infuriating. Again, I'm glad I can afford rent and groceries, unlike so many Angelenos, but I am genuinely afraid for when I or one of my loved ones becomes ill with COVID-19.
Work is quiet. The lot is a ghost town, and traffic is minimal. Most of my job is customer service, and waiting. I understand that the idea is I need to be here in case television equipment that is essential to continue broadcasting comes in, but mostly, I'm just killing time. While I’m at work, I just wish that people would take the precautions to properly quarantine. I wish I could.
Selenee Flores, 26, Modesto, CA
I work as a clinical supervisor for a medication-assisted treatment program for people addicted to opioids. We work alongside a medical doctor who dispenses methadone and buprenorphine to help the people we counsel. Since the beginning of COVID-19, I've been switching between being grateful that I still have a job and not being able to focus on my work because I’m constantly worrying.
Typically, each client in our facility is seen for weekly face-to-face individual counseling, but now we’ve moved completely to telecounseling. The only exceptions are for those who do not have phones or are hard of hearing. We’re doing the telecounseling from the office, but the program is currently exploring options to do that from home. The company is constantly working to develop policies that ensure the safety of both staff and clients. We’ve cancelled group counseling and in-person staff meetings. Almost every day, we’re presented with new directives that are overwhelming and difficult, but definitely necessary.
Doing virtual check-ins with clients has definitely affected attendance. People just aren’t answering, and counselors have limitations on holding them accountable if we can’t make direct contact. Typically, if they’re physically in here with us, we have ways to de-escalate or convince them to participate but if they’re not even answering the phone, then we don’t even have a chance.
High-risk patients are required to check in the clinic daily to receive their medication, but we’ve worked within federal and state guidelines to dispense medication for several days at a time to limit traffic throughout the clinic. Clients being unable to access their meds can be dangerous because they can have severe withdrawal symptoms from methadone. The anxiety of that as a possibility can lead to desperate behaviors. Because of that, their poor attendance to telecounseling has not affected their take home regimen at this time. It’s important that we provide the best services we can right now, so that means there’s slightly more leeway. We’re still giving them their medication, even though they’re not necessarily meeting the clinical aspect of treatment because they’re missing their counseling.
Katelynn Hubbard, 26, Charlotte, NC
I work for Primrose of Cornelius in Cornelius, NC. We are an early-childhood school for infants to kindergarteners, as well as an after-school care program. Now, since school has been dismissed until May 15, we also watch children of school age.
Our days have completely changed. Parents are no longer allowed inside of the building for any reason. In our school, each classroom has a back door connected to the playground. At pick-up and drop-off, the parents have to drop their kids off at the back door with a short goodbye before we rush them in to wash their hands. This is extremely hard on the kids who are used to their parents coming in with them. If we hear a child cough, we are required to send them home for 72 hours and they cannot return until they have a doctor’s note. Same goes for any child who has a temperature of 100 degrees or higher. We used to have around 150 kids at our center, but we now have 30. We’re opening up to the possibility of taking in kids we've never met before to help other essential workers who desperately need childcare.
I feel great about being deemed an essential worker. In my line of work, many people call us a "glorified babysitter" when, in fact, we do so much more than just watch children. Caring for children so parents can work is especially important right now for those parents who are providing essential services for our country. We might not be in the medical field saving lives, or making sure that the shelves are stocked at the store so no one has to go hungry, but we're providing stability and loving their children like our own when they can't be there or leave their kids with high-risk grandparents.
Jack, 24, Tacoma, WA
I work at a regional pet supply retailer specializing in holistic foods. My co-workers and I are incredibly grateful for our job security. That said, every day feels like my life is being controlled and put at risk by a business trying to ensure their profit, and I regularly feel hopeless in deciding my own fate.
A typical day at work during the crisis is busier than it's ever been before. Customers are panic-buying needlessly—our suppliers have taken a small hit to inventory, but are otherwise fine. My company has chosen to use painter’s tape to mark a healthy social distance from our registers, and we are told to ask customers to wait behind the line while we scan their items, which they rarely acknowledge. Additionally, the registers are not six feet away from each other, leaving workers to stand shoulder to shoulder while checking out the large groups of customers gathered by the registers.
It is not uncommon for customers to enter the store solely to browse. I regularly have customers who are clearly sick, evidenced by their coughing and sniffling, that decide to wander through the store and shop for upwards of 30 minutes, only to buy one nonessential item for their pet.
During the chaos, workers consistently ask our bosses to reduce public access, remaining open but preventing customers from aimlessly wandering our aisles and increasing our risk of infection. They refuse. The company has launched a series of programs designed to take the burden off of workers, including a $2 per hour bonus during the crisis and adding temporary positions designed to manage crowds. These might be a decent assist in the short term, but will not matter if we are all infected and unable to work due to higher volume of staff and customers in stores.
Customers need to spend less time shopping. This is not the time to browse. It is completely OK to go into a store and get what you need, but really consider if what you need is essential to not only your survival, but the survival of everyone you may interact with, and their families, as well.
Jordyn Templeton, 22, Fargo, ND
I work at a nonprofit called CCRI, an organization that provides long-term care for adults with disabilities. I work in our supported living services program, so we provide 24/7 care to adults. I am a direct support professional (DSP), meaning I support disabled adults with daily tasks and programming activities with their peers.
Our days have been very different than usual. Normally, we try to keep our clients as involved with their communities as possible, and most spend their days interacting with their peers. All of that has been put on hold, so clients are having to stay in their homes. This has been a hard transition, as our clients love to go out. DSPs are having to be a lot more creative about in-home activities.
It feels weird to still be working. While everyone else is having hours cut, we are doing the opposite and working a lot of overtime to make sure our clients are cared for. I see all my friends posting about being quarantined and not liking being stuck at home, while I still have to go out every day for work.
I’ve always known the type of care we provide is essential, but now I think it is a reminder to everyone that jobs others think are less important are actually what are holding us up right now. It also has shown me how much our staff really loves and cares for our clients—so many people are sacrificing in order to keep the people we support safe and healthy. It’s stressful, but still rewarding.
Ben Wiebe, 54, St. Paul, MN
I am contracted in mail services through a multi-national contractor, where I process and deliver mail sent to our campus.
I have been given “safe passage” papers from my employer to allow me to travel to and from work without getting fined by the police—another supposed "perk" of being deemed essential. Honestly, I feel like what I’m doing isn’t really essential, and I feel guilty about being able to go on with my daily routine while others are unemployed and stuck at home. It feels like a betrayal to my fellow workers—my spouse included—that I am allowed to get in my car each morning and drive to my job. Just to be able to leave my house to do the thing that will keep me and my spouse alive, fed, and sheltered is a privilege, but I don’t feel essential. At best, I feel lucky, but with the knowledge that it can all fall apart any day.
Everything is the same, except at a much reduced volume and pace. Incoming shipments from USPS, UPS, and FedEx have dropped substantially, but things still come in, and we deliver them. There’s quite a bit more downtime. I know I’m only essential up to a point. If USPS, UPS, and FedEx decide to cease operations, I along with my co-workers will not be needed here. Being essential feels like lip service to get me to keep coming in to work and feeling grateful for the opportunity, while risking my health (and my spouse’s health) and getting paid less than others who are able to work safely from home. Plus, it's the job that is essential—not me.
Nadine Aguayo Huerta, 28, Oakland, CA
I work for an acute inpatient hospital in the Bay Area in the Medical-Surgery (Med-Surg) department. I take care of five patients at a time who have become medically unstable or are at risk due to uncontrolled chronic medical conditions, acute illnesses and injuries, or invasive medical procedures. Med-Surg is recognized as the mixed bag of nursing, as there is no specialty—we take care of anyone and everything. I truly consider myself to be lucky and privileged to serve in this capacity during this time, despite the myriad problems that we deal with uniquely on the front lines.
The policies and procedures we operate under are changing daily—sometimes hourly—as we find out more and more about this virus. It can be overwhelming, because how we should be protecting ourselves and the resources we have to do so are not aligned with each other. The shortage of protective equipment is dangerous. We are given a limited number of masks, gowns, and goggles per shift and are reusing the supplies several times if they're not soiled. Sometimes, we even share among ourselves, trusting that the person before us sanitized the equipment appropriately. The manufacturers of the supplies are saying that the devices weren't designed to be sterilized and recycled; yet, here we are, stretching the resources we do have, making or providing our own to continue our work. We on the front lines are working as hard as we can with all that we've got, but take our pleas for more support seriously. We are not advocating selfishly; we are the gatekeepers of public health and if we are not protected, neither are our communities.
To mitigate infection risk, our hospitals have closed their doors to all visitors, leaving our patients all alone. We are the only interaction that they have while being admitted, and I can't even begin to describe the sadness we feel knowing a patient is taking their last breaths and their family members or friends aren't able to say their goodbyes and support their loved ones during the transition. This is hard work and I’m glad nurses and doctors are being highlighted for fighting COVID-19, but our efforts would be nothing without the ancillary services and other professions we collaborate with to take care of our patients. Environmental services, dietary services, case managers, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, distribution and suppliers are all working overtime to meet the ever-increasing needs of healthcare delivery. Outside of the hospital and clinics, farmworkers, cashiers, garbage men and women, and pharmacists continue to work in order to maintain normalcy in our communities.
We need help. Call your politicians, sign petitions, and demand that we be protected at all costs. We need pressure on politicians and corporations to prioritize people over profits for all of our safety and well-being. History has shown moments where Americans have risen to the occasion, and that occasion is now—the sooner we start, the better.
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