Every evening in many parts of the country, quarantined residents cheer for essential workers — doctors, nurses, and first responders — to thank them for their service. But the range of people we’re depending on to keep our economy going during the pandemic, take care of us and our loved ones, and keep us safe is much broader than that.
The reality is that essential workers in the midst of the coronavirus crisis are fast food workers, social workers, cleaners, retail associates, transit workers, home health aides, and even those who provide support for victims of domestic violence. They’re often not highly paid individuals, and they’re risking their lives.
For Helen Sweeney, a veterinarian in upstate New York, being essential right now means curbside service where pets, not people, are allowed into her clinic. Her team tries to take videos and pictures so the influx of new pet owners have a sense that they “were there,” or find ways for them to peek through a window. For euthanasia, though, they break their own rules — owners are allowed in as long as everyone wears masks and gloves and stays at a safe distance.
For Nichole and Jason Pavlus, a hospital social worker and a mail carrier, being essential means if they get sick with Covid-19, wondering who gave it to whom: “If I get it from my work and I give it to him, will he give it to the employees he’s worked with?”
Whether you are deemed essential depends, in part, on where you live. In Arizona, the governor deemed golf courses essential. In Pennsylvania, liquor stores were shuttered as nonessential; in New Jersey, they were not. Guidelines as to whether construction workers are essential vary from state to state, and not everyone who is considered essential wants to be. There is federal guidance laying out parameters around the essential workforce, but for many people, whether they’re expected to go into work and what sort of protections they’ll get depend on their state governors and their company bosses.
Millions of essential jobs are low-paid ones, where paid leave isn’t an option, let alone the offer of employer-subsidized health insurance. They are jobs disproportionately held by women and, particularly, women of color. Black and Hispanic workers are able to work from home at lower rates than white and Asian Americans, and so if they’re working in essential posts, they’re likelier to be in person. The higher representation of black and Hispanic people the “essential” category likely contributes to the race gap in coronavirus deaths in many parts of the US. Some are wondering what their sacrifice is really worth, and they’re struggling with the complicated idea that they’re being forced into danger while still be grateful to have a job.
Kylee Mays, a McDonald’s worker in Hawaii, wonders why she’s exposing herself to the virus every day earning $11.57 an hour while people on unemployment are making more. One Walgreens associate in Brooklyn making $15 an hour spends $20 on Ubers to and from his job because public transportation is too slow and too scary right now.
The coronavirus crisis has exposed many ugly truths about America, how underrecognized and underappreciated essential workers are, not just during a pandemic but always. I spoke with nearly two dozen essential workers across the country in recent days, some on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, to ask them about their experiences: what it means to be essential right now, how they’re feeling, what they’re worried about, and what they want people to know. The picture that emerged was not the one I expected.
Essential workers are doing much more than letting you stay home
One of the lines that’s become common around essential workers is that they’re allowing those of us who have the privilege of staying home to do it, helping keep the economy going while the health crisis unfolds. But essential workers are really care workers, in every sense of the word.
Take Melanie, a caregiver at an assisted living facility in Colorado. The patients she works with have dementia and Alzheimer’s, and it’s been difficult to explain to them what’s going on — why their families can’t visit, why they can’t go outside. Two people on her six-person team have had to be quarantined, meaning she’s having to take on extra shifts and is exhausted. She makes $12 an hour and doesn’t have health insurance. While she acknowledges some extra money would be nice, what she really wishes is that her boss would even check on her, give her a call. “She’s putting these residents’ care in our hands, but our hands are getting tired,” she said.
At one point in the conversation, she asked if other people I’d heard from were feeling anxious, as if to confirm she wasn’t alone. She’s a widow and lives alone with her dogs.
I asked her if she’s considered quitting, given the stress of the situation. “My heart won’t let me, because then who’s going to look after these residents?” she replied.
There are more than 3 million home health and personal care aides across the country, the vast majority of whom are women and more half of whom are people of color. They take care of the elderly and disabled in their homes and in community settings, and right now, those people are leaning on them more than ever, and not for a lot of money: The average hourly wage for the group is $12.71.
But even essential workers who aren’t directly working in care functions are doing just that: caring for people. In a global pandemic, cars still break down, trash still gets thrown out. People, in general, need help.
Diedre, a state employee in Sacramento, California, works in an office where her job is to forward mail to domestic violence victims so that their abusers can’t find them. Millions of people are trapped at home with their abusers right now under stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, and the work she is doing is likely about to intensify. “We are their lifeline,” she said. “We’re not like witness protection, but we give them the tools to be able to feel safe and secure in doing simple things like receiving a piece of mail.”
Alexa Zachary, a marketing coordinator for campus dining at North Carolina A&T State University, has been charged with making sure the 200 students still on campus are being fed. That includes pitching in as a grill cook or cashier when regular employees can’t come in. Her husband, also essential, is a police dispatcher at a nearby college where just 15 students are left. When I asked if he was bored at work, she chuckled, “He’s watched a lot of Netflix.”
The workers who are taking care of the rest of the country are putting their lives on the line — and some of them are dying. In New York City, the epicenter of the United States’ coronavirus crisis, dozens of transit workers, doormen, janitors, and health care workers have died of the disease. The city’s Sanitation Department just reported its first employee death.
On the front lines in the ER and at Target
Essential workers are living on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, up close and personal. They didn’t need to read about the Great Toilet Paper Hoarding of March 2020 or hear harrowing stories about patients on ventilators, they lived it.
For those in hospitals and the health care system, the experience can be both tragic and uplifting. They’re seeing what this disease is doing to people each and every day, even if they’re not a doctor or a nurse.
Coronavirus patients’ families aren’t allowed to be with them in the hospital, which means coronavirus victims suffer — and sometimes die — alone. Health care workers try to set up FaceTime and video chats for people to talk to their families or to say goodbye. One respiratory therapist in Texas described connecting a family with a patient who was on a ventilator and unconscious. “It was more of a comfort for the family, to be able to hope that they could hear them,” she said, worrying she was about to start to cry.
But she emphasized that a lot of people do get better. And when they do and are discharged, the hospital plays them a song, “Here Comes the Sun,” which appears to have become a trend in hospitals across the country. “There are people that are coming out of this, it’s not just completely 100 percent you get it and that’s it.”
One social worker in Queens told me she thinks one-third of her department is out sick, largely due to Covid-19. The day before we spoke, a nursing manager had snuck her downstairs and disguised her as a nurse so she could get a highly coveted N95 mask. She’s struggling to find child care for her kids — it’s especially impossible to find a babysitter for your kids when you work in a hospital.
“It’s one thing if I work in a hospital, but my kids didn’t sign up for this. Frankly, no one signed up to work in a pandemic,” she said, describing the “animosity” that she and other health care workers sometimes feel toward the public and the trauma they’re facing.
Then she paused, asking me if I could hear the clapping in the background. Every time a patient is extubated — a good sign for their recovery — the hospital applauds. “It’s sad, for sure, and people are dying, but I hear that clapping like three times a day,” she said.
For essential workers outside of hospitals, the front-line experience is a less dire one, but nevertheless stressful, risky, and sometimes perplexing.
When people flooded grocery stores and retailers to stock up as the coronavirus pandemic set in in March, essential workers were the ones who had to deal with them — and were among those most at risk for contracting the disease from the crowds. They’re the ones who have to interact with customers complaining about out-of-stock items or compel them to abide by guidelines around social distancing and masks. They also don’t need to hear about whatever people’s quarantine hobbies are on social media — they can see it in buying trends.
Sandra Cisneros, a manager at a Family Dollar in Taos, New Mexico, started implementing a two toilet paper packs per person rule in her store before it was implemented by corporate. She finds the hoarding a little perplexing — she jokes that it’s like people buying nasal spray for diarrhea — but also recognizes the desperation customers feel.
Most older people get their welfare checks on the third of every month, so she held back some cases of toilet paper and paper towels so she could put them out to make sure there would be some left for them when they come in. Someone went into the back room and saw. “I had to go on Facebook and say we’re not hoarding it, we’re saving it for older people,” she told me.
Cisneros’s store, like so many, regularly runs out of hand sanitizer and wipes, so she’s started to post do-it-yourself recipes by the register. After we spoke, she sent me the recipes, too.
Workers say most — but not all — customers are treating them better than normal in these extenuating circumstances, which anyone who’s ever had a customer service job can tell you is quite a feat.
“We’ve got people coming up to us being like, ‘Thank you for being here, we appreciate you,’” one Target associate in Texas told me. “Normally, they just kind of look down on retail employees.”
She said pick-up and curbside orders have skyrocketed amid the crisis, on top of the people still coming in the store. And some of what they’re buying is a little befuddling. People seem to be picking up more school supplies and books, which seems nice. But other items make less sense.
“You never would have thought yeast would have been a big seller, but it seems like every time it’s coming in, it goes out of stock,” she said. “Some of the things that people want is just a weird thing with this coronapocalypse.”
Essential workers are scared for themselves and their families
Those who are working from home right now are faced with a new and challenging reality: trying to balance their work responsibilities with their children’s needs, figuring out how to keep schedules, just finding a comfortable place to sit. For people going in to work, the personal-professional blend is there, too, but in a different way.
Some essential workers say they feel like “sacrificial lambs” and are having to take risks they didn’t exactly sign up for. And it’s not just their own health they’re putting in peril, it’s also that of their families and the people who live with them.
One Family Dollar worker in Georgia said she prays every day, “Lord, just watch over me and protect me. And then I’ve got to go home to my family, is my family being exposed?” She has three teenage children at home. “I tell the kids as soon as I open that door to spread me down head to toe with Lysol.”
And in some households, it’s not just one member who is essential but multiple, which can heighten anxieties even more. Diedre, the state employee, is married to a mechanic who is also essential right now. His shop has run out of hand sanitizer — people keep stealing it. “There is a very high chance that we will eventually get it and give it to our children, and I have a child with a breathing issue, he has really bad asthma, and that is terrifying,” she said. They’re also balancing how to handle child care when both are at work.
In March, President Donald Trump signed into law a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, the CARES Act, that among other things beefs up unemployment insurance significantly. On top of state benefits, the federal government is tacking on an extra $600 a week for four months and has expanded who can apply for and collect benefits.
This has become a source of animosity among some essential workers, many of whom are making less than they would if they were unemployed and receiving benefits. Some of them would rather stay home, go on unemployment, and stay safe, but they’re stuck. Unemployment benefits generally go only to those who are fired, furloughed, or laid off, not those who quit. In some states, they can try to get on unemployment after leaving their jobs, but it’s a risk. And even if they might qualify, unemployment systems across the country have been jammed, and it’s not clear when the money might start coming in, if at all.
Sarah Miller, who works at a small family restaurant in Georgia, is making $9 an hour right now and doesn’t have health insurance. She’s worried about getting sick and, even more so, getting her mother, who she lives with, sick. “If she gets this, it could possibly kill her,” she said.
Her bosses asked if she wanted to take temporary leave until things get better, but she said no. “I’ll probably just stay working there because I know there’s a problem with people getting unemployment right now as it is, and I’m not sure about being able to get the money that I need for unemployment,” she said.
“What I want is for employers and for our legislators to really take care of essential workers, they are the backbone of the economy,” said Rudolph Thomas, a caretaker for children with autism in New York who has started a petition calling for hazard pay for all essential workers. “We’re the only workforce that is keeping the economy afloat, and that cannot go unnoticed.”
“They just care about having someone there to help them make money”
Low-wage workers are among the hardest hit by layoffs amid the coronavirus crisis. But millions of low-wage workers have suddenly been deemed essential, too. And so on top of being terrified about their health, they’re also in incredibly precarious financial positions.
Some companies have instituted hazard pay or one-time bonuses, but it really depends on where you work as to what you get and whether you get it. What’s the calculation on how much risking your life is worth? An extra $1, $2, $3 an hour? A one-time bonus? A dollar an hour in hazard pay translates to $160 a month before taxes. And in many cases, businesses are reducing their hours, meaning employees are having their hours reduced, too. Any addition to wages might be canceled out.
One Walgreens worker in Brooklyn I spoke with explained that in March, Walgreens had announced a one-time bonus — $150 for part-time and $300 for full-time employees. But the store he works at has shortened its hours and is increasingly short-staffed. They’re making less and under more stress. “They really don’t care about us, they just care about having someone there to help them make money,” he said.
He’s been taking Ubers to and from work instead of public transportation, which is running less frequently now — and feels more dangerous. “It’s also expensive, because you’re making minimum wage, $15, and then you spend $20 on an Uber, and that is more than I made for an hour of work.”
Josh Johnson, a driver in Orlando, estimates he’s lost three-quarters of his income due to the coronavirus. With tourism coming to a halt and people staying in, making money from Uber and Lyft is next to impossible, and he’s scared to drive people around right now anyway. He had been living in his car, but he’s been staying with a friend since the county has implemented a curfew, and he’s delivering pizza for a national chain. It’s not all bad — he told me he’s training to be a manager, and he kind of likes the contactless delivery thing. It speeds things up a little bit.
Stephanie, a construction inspector in Las Vegas, told me she also feels like she’s being squeezed. They’ve been doing more concrete pours for new houses in the past three weeks than in the past three months, she said, which is strange, given the circumstances. She suspects it’s because developers are trying to speed up work in case construction is no longer deemed essential.
That’s another thing I heard from essential workers when we talked: Just because someone is essential now doesn’t mean they will be forever. Job security is not guaranteed.
And in the day to day, essential workers are facing all sorts of challenges on the ground we just don’t see.
Those who work in retail stores are competing with customers for some of the items that are in such high demand, and if they’re lucky, their managers stow away a box of hand sanitizer or Lysol wipes every once in a while so they can take them home. The personal protective equipment they usually need for their jobs is suddenly in short supply. Obviously, doctors and nurses need them more, but you don’t want to be serving food without gloves or working construction without a mask.
One substance abuse director at a jail in Kentucky told me that going into work is actually the most normal part of her life — beyond getting her temperature checked, the day to day is the same. What’s strange is waiting in line to get into Kroger’s. One woman who works in a waste management office in Arkansas said she’s worried about her medical safety and about her husband’s job. But she also just really misses her favorite bar. “I need my margarita,” she told me.
We’ve seen what it means to be essential. Will we remember?
I heard about one local community leaving disinfectant wipes in their mailboxes for their mail carrier. One pharmacy worker said he’d given elderly customers hand sanitizer he’d tucked away for himself when the store ran out. Sometimes, workers deal with the stress through humor, and they’re funny. If you’ve got some spare time, take a look at some essential worker TikTok videos. They do not disappoint.
But some of the conversations were also devastating. Millions of essential workers are under extreme levels of stress right now, and the uncertainty and anxiety seem unbearable. And sure, everyone is being nice to them now, but if and when this ends, who’s to say people won’t go back to treating them like they’re a piece of furniture?
When I asked one retail worker what she wants from this and what she thinks people should know, she seemed taken back. “Honestly, I just kind of wish if we’re considered essential, maybe we’d be paid essential,” she responded.
After we hung up the phone, she continued thinking and wrote me a lengthy follow-up message. “What I really hope is that after all this, we will reassess what is important,” she wrote. “We will realize that we are all just a few paychecks from horrible debt or poverty.”
Melanie, the Colorado caretaker, said she just wants people to know that we’ll get through this, and that things are bad right now but they’ll get better. And she hopes the coronavirus-inspired kindness we’re seeing now doesn’t end with the crisis. “Why can’t we always be like this? Stop being so selfish and look out for each other more. If nothing else, take that away,” she said.
She stopped abruptly, distracted by a neighbor apparently carrying a grocery bag. “Oh, I see Walmart has toilet paper now.”