Not every worker can stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those deemed “essential” have clearance to leave to perform tasks deemed crucial for human safety and health.
And they risk exposure to COVID-19 by doing so.
We asked some of them to share their experiences. Names of individuals and some details have been withheld or altered to protect their identity and jobs. The stories have been edited slightly for clarity.
‘We are running ourselves ragged’
Lisa, a chef/supervisor at an assisted living facility: The residents where I work are 55 years of age and older and they all have some sort of behavioral health issue. Within the last couple weeks, we have had seven residents taken out for COVID-19 symptoms. The first one tested positive and has already passed away. The second is asymptomatic and still at the hospital, and the others are more recent, so we are waiting on their test results.
Our head nurse has been out sick for at least three weeks now. One of my employees in the kitchen had tested positive and has been out for two weeks. Other employees are scared and not coming in at all or are sick and haven’t gone for testing. We have been taking all the necessary precautions that we can, but it seems like that’s not stopping it.
We are so short-staffed that we are running ourselves ragged. Trying to order supplies has been crazy, too. They are either out, in short supply, or the delivery times have been pushed back so far that we’re only able to get what we can get. My oldest daughter also works there, so I am extra afraid of either one of us bringing it home to my other two daughters or my 72- year- old mother who lives upstairs from us and watches them.
I feel anxious and nervous, and I’m pretty much drained every day when I get home. To be honest, if they take any more residents out for this, I probably will stop going in. I have to do what I have to do to keep my family safe.
‘We get treated like garbage’
Jane, a housekeeper: I work at a local hospital. Unfortunately, I am considered an essential worker so there’s no staying at home. While I felt fortunate still having a job while everyone was losing theirs, the great risk of being infected and bringing it home was scary. As the days went by, it has become a nightmare working in this field.
We are treated horribly by our staff. We are not provided the right personal protective equipment, and we are forced to clean COVID-19 rooms and report to work sick. I’m currently under in-home quarantine due to symptoms. Even after reporting the symptoms, I was told to report to work, but instead went to the emergency room. I believe we are frontline workers, but we get treated like garbage.
‘I’ve revised my living will’
Linda, a public health nurse: Essential worker here. I used to work in an oncology setting. If you know cancer survivors, you know they feel a great deal of anxiety before they go in for their 3-6-9-12 month checkups. They fear finding out that they have cancer again.
I feel like that. Every. Single. Day. I sit on the edge of my bed thinking … is this the day? Will I bring it home today? If I do, how will I fare? I’ve revised my living will just to make sure, if my life were to end, it ends as I want it to.
‘We get yelled at, spit on and called names’
Maria: I work at Walmart and as a tax preparer. At Walmart, it’s like Black Friday every single day. I have been yelled at for not having toilet paper and called an [expletive] at work for asking for ID to sell ammunition. Tax preparation has increased due the stimulus check and we get nonstop calls about it. It has been stressful, but I am thankful I am able to work when so many cannot. But kindness does go a long way.
I worry so much about my daughter who just had my first grandbaby. I have not met her because there’s no way I am putting them at risk. My heart hurts due to the fact a lot of people don’t appreciate what we as retailers go through every day since this started. We get yelled at, spit on and called names. Just always remember: Do unto others as you would want done to you. One person, one cart. If you don’t have to go out, don’t. Don’t risk your family.
‘I’m just afraid to be around people’
Tanya: I work as a medical assistant in a women’s health clinic. I still have to go to work, and it makes me nervous. I’m doing the best I can at my job to keep everyone safe, so we are all wearing masks and cleaning everything every day. But it does make me scared. I have two family members who have already contracted the virus. I’m just afraid to be around people.
‘Nervous and anxious’
Jennifer: I’m an Amazon flex delivery driver. Work there has slowed way down, not that there’s no work, but because there are so many drivers so it’s hard to get deliveries. There are more workers because a lot of people have lost or been laid off from their normal jobs.
Right now, Amazon is basically delivering only essential things. It’s a little scary going to work, having to be in the warehouse where a lot of other people are and touching cars and packages that other people are touching. It makes me a little nervous and anxious.
‘Working for me is bittersweet’
Ofelia: I work as a staffing consultant in the Milwaukee area. We are still putting people to work despite the COVID-19 and stay-at home order. Of course, we have had to switch our process and limit walk-in applications and have switched over to phone screens and online applications. We are a small office (four in total), so half of the office is working from home and half is currently in the office. We are practicing social distancing.
Working for me is bittersweet. I have little ones so of course I would like to be at home and spend more time with my children, but unfortunately, I am not able to work from home. But I am also grateful that I still have a job and I am able to support my family during these rough times. Luckily, I have a great support system. Since I must work in the office, I limit my travels to only work and home. The less I can put myself out there, the less risk I have on potentially catching something and infecting my family.
‘Any moment you can catch it’
Orlando: I’ve been welding at my company for a couple years, and we’re still up and running as we speak, and it’s a scary thing. My fiancé and I are worried everyday especially with the rapid spread of the disease. We have kids and her parents are in their 60s. So our worst fear is for one of us to catch COVID-19 and then spread it to one of them. Recently, there was a situation/scare at work. One of our welders wasn’t feeling good.
He went into the emergency room Sunday and died in the hospital. I didn’t go to work for two days this week because I wasn’t feeling good and had flu-like symptoms. I didn’t hear about his death until I got a text about it from friends at work. None of them knew how or why he died. So I decided to go back to work because I couldn’t afford to miss any more days. When I went into work the rumor around the plant was that he died because of liver problems. Well, after I spoke to my supervisor, he wanted me to pair up with the same guy who was working with the individual who died. So I did. Rumor has it that supervisors are scrambling because it’s been confirmed that the guy who died was COVID-19 positive.
Come to find out it’s all true. The guy who died was positive. We had a meeting and were told to start taking more precautions to stay safe like washing our hands, using sanitizer and implementing six feet of safe distance.
We have no real answers about what’s gonna happen next. Just that they’re going to investigate everything more. I kind of flipped out and told them they had me working in the same area as the guy who died and that now I could be contaminated as might EVERYBODY else in the plant as well. So the company told me to stay home and go get checked for COVID-19 and to keep them posted. So mentally, this is all stressful and scary because any moment you can catch it.