Millions of American workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic have no choice but to show up for work. They have a job to do and, although aware and wary of the risks, are determined to do it.
Alex & Red and its sister firm The Alexander Group reached out to these essential employees and asked them to share their stories. They are 9-1-1 dispatchers, retail workers, delivery persons and personal bankers. They are our neighbors, friends and family members. And their stories remind us that, although working from home can be stressful and distracting, it is also a privilege.
Pam, a 9-1-1 Operator in the Pacific Northwest
As a 9-1-1 operator working in a metropolitan area of the Pacific Northwest, I am accustomed to rapidly changing situations. A typical shift is 12 hours, and during that time I rotate between answering non-emergency calls; dispatching police, fire, and medical teams; and answering the 9-1-1 emergency line.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, there have been a myriad of changes inside and outside of our department. Internally, we are not allowing anyone outside of required staff on our operations floor. Administrative staff is either on a different floor or working from home; part-time administrative staff has taken on extra cleaning duties to sanitize high-traffic areas; and instead of rotating every two hours through our stations, we now stay four to six hours and sanitize every time we move. All ride-alongs and sit-alongs (when someone from the public or an academy cadet, etc. rides along with officers or sits alongside a 9-1-1 operator during a shift) have been cancelled, as have officer and family visits.
The most difficult and impactful change for both operators and first responders is the social distancing requirement. There are between 13 and 25 operators in one room on a shift, with each of us needing five to seven monitors. Space is limited, so we are utilizing a training room for part of our staff.
The nature of our calls has also changed: There are more burglary and domestic violence calls (the latter of which is largely attributed to increased alcohol consumption), and there is an increase in mental health and suicide calls.
I worry about what will happen if someone in my department gets sick.
Risk is naturally higher for those in the field, so we are taking extra time on every call to screen for COVID-19 symptoms. First responders wear masks at all times now and suit up in full personal protection equipment—regardless of the type of call—creating longer response times.
I feel lucky to be an essential worker in these unprecedented times. This happens to be National Telecommunicators Week and all the usual ceremonies and celebrations for our department have been cancelled. It is a bit disappointing, but also understandable and I don’t mind. I am more focused on the relief to be found in the security of my job when I know so many who are losing theirs.
I worry about what will happen if someone in my department gets sick. It is a high-stress industry that many people—even with two years of training—can’t withstand. Between 25 and 50 percent of each academy class “washes out” before graduating (although it varies by city). Even in normal times, there isn’t a lot of extra staff to cover shifts. We are developing contingency plans and off-site locations, but still I worry, who is going to staff a shift if several people are out sick? 9-1-1 calls have to be answered.
Robin, Grocery Delivery Person, Texas
Last August I started working for a company called Favordelivery.com, which guarantees deliveries within an hour. When I started, I made deliveries from grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, building supply stores, and even taking pets to the groomers. Now, my deliveries are 90 to 95 percent food-related.
I was lucky to get this job before the pandemic spread to the United States. When you’re over 60, it’s hard to get a job. Some of the only jobs available for unskilled workers are for delivery companies, but the market is pretty saturated. H-E-B (a Texas-based grocery chain) received over 40,000 applications within the last few weeks. They’ve definitely hired extra people, but nowhere close to 40,000.
My husband works in commercial refrigeration at NRG Stadium, but is currently furloughed and collecting unemployment. Both my husband and I had surgery last summer (I actually had three) and we have a large deductible to pay off. That’s why I’m working 12 hours a day, five days a week.
I keep hand sanitizer in my car, and I wear a mask and gloves at all times. All of my customers have been practicing safe protocols. When I drop off deliveries, they’re usually standing behind their door. If I don’t see them, I knock or ring the doorbell just to make sure they know it’s there. The restaurants that allow people inside to pick up food only let about five people in at a time; many only offer curbside pickup now.
Some of the only jobs available for unskilled workers are for delivery companies, but the market is pretty saturated.
It’s important that I keep working in spite of the risks. The number one reason is that it’s helping people; number two, it helps me financially; and number three is that it gets me out of the house. I’m not good staying inside for long periods of time; all I want to do is lay around. There are only so many times you can take the dogs out for a walk (laughing). I like to be social and even though we’re practicing social distancing, I can still interact with my customers. Everybody is so happy to see me; it feels good. It’s a service that needs to be done, and it’s nice to be needed. I have customers who need their insulin or other medications, and when the pharmacy can’t deliver it for eight hours, I can get it to them in under an hour.
I really don’t worry. For me, worry is akin to praying for the worst possible outcome. Of course, you need to be aware and informed about what’s going on, but staying positive is important. I am also deep into prayer on this whole thing. I pray every time before I leave the house that I am guarded, that I protect other people, and that the Lord is with me.
My number one precaution is having faith; there cannot be any fear if you have faith.
Angela, Vice President of Personal Banking at a Southern California-based Bank
I started working at this bank as a teller right after graduating high school. I have spent my entire 40-plus-year career here. In my current position, I am the relationship manager for commercial businesses (like escrow and title companies) and property managers. I handle their day-to-day needs—wire transfers, stop payments and all operational issues.
Prior to COVID-19, I had no concerns working in a client-facing environment. After it hit, the bank reacted quickly. To adjust for social distancing, anyone with the ability to work from home did so immediately. Those who needed time to set up for telecommuting and those who are required to work in the branch are spread out between different offices and floors. Some employees, myself included, already have our own office so we began staying in there as much as possible. Break times are staggered to avoid too many people in the break room at one time and, of course, there are well-stocked handwashing stations and hand sanitizer.
The most difficult and stressful part of my job right now is continuing to serve my clients under conditions not previously navigated. Our bank already had established options for clients to access their accounts electronically; now, we have had to enhance our systems to allow our bankers to access systems remotely—quickly transitioning bankers to work from home while maintaining security protocols and accessibility. Circumstances and procedures change daily. It’s my job to maintain the same level of service while making sure that what we do behind the scenes remains invisible.
Personally—and above all else—my main concern is keeping my family healthy and safe. My husband and older son are both immunosuppressed: one because of an arthritis medication and the other from a bone marrow transplant. To keep them safe, I take the same precautions recommended to all essential workers: I use caution while at work and in public, wear a mask, wash up as soon as I get home, watch for any symptoms, and stay at home on my days off.
I am only a couple of months away from retiring. I’ve been asked why I don’t just retire early, but my work ethic doesn’t agree with that. I have colleagues that I care about and clients that I feel connected to and responsible for; they are also family to me. I don’t want any of them to have one more thing to worry about right now.
Supporting them through this difficult moment in time was an easy choice for me to make.
Mark, Team Lead, National Retail Store, Southern California
I am a Service and Engagement Team Lead at a big-box retail store in Southern California. Basically, I am a front-end manager; I am responsible for a team of cashiers, cart attendants, greeters and cleaning staff, and I handle guest concerns and complaints.
While many stores in California are closed, our stores offer essentials items so we’re open. My job has changed a lot in the past month though. We are given a new set of corporate guidelines every day, and it has been stressful for the team. We do not know what each day will bring. I’ve had a number of cashiers not show up for work simply because they do not feel safe to do so. When shelter-in-place orders first began, the corporate office told us we were not allowed to wear masks or gloves in the store because it would scare customers away. Fortunately, they have changed those guidelines. Most of my staff has also received a two-dollar-an-hour raise for the next six weeks, which helps.
Unfortunately, the corporate office has not rolled out capacity guidelines as far as number of customers who can be in the store at one time, and we are not allowed to refuse anyone service. We did have a policy requiring customers to wear a mask, but it only lasted for a couple of days; customers complained. One customer was so upset he returned to the store after the policy had been lifted, dropped his pants, and relieved himself in the women’s activewear section. That’s just one crazy story.
I have no choice but to work ... I’m bringing in the only income.
I’ve also been concerned about transparency and communication from management. An employee at another store in our area was diagnosed with COVID-19. We didn’t hear about it from management; we heard about it from customers wanting to know if it was our store. That caused a lot of confusion and worry amongst my team. The other store was never shut down; they just did a deep clean and sent everyone back to work. Another time, an employee at our store with symptoms was asked to quarantine at home. Management never followed up to let us know the diagnosis, so again there was a lot of gossip, confusion and worry.
I have no choice but to work. My girlfriend works in retail and is now unemployed because of the pandemic. I’m bringing in the only income. I’m also helping my parents right now. They are both undocumented immigrants and unable to file for unemployment. My dad is diabetic, and my mom has heart problems, so we really need to keep them safe.
I’m most worried about my parents getting sick, or my girlfriend or me getting sick, and that’s on top of the financial fears that I have. I’m already in debt with school loans, so it’s a tough time.
This series will continue next week. Please note that some names have been changed at the request of the workers profiled. Read Part 1 of our series here.