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Essential workers are putting themselves at risk

by Brittany Reed

COVID-19 has caused people in the U.S. to change their lifestyles  as the number of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise. More than 40 states have issued stay at home orders, meaning people must not leave their homes except for essential services, according to CNN.

According to Fox News, essential workers include health professionals, food and agricultural workers, pharmacy employees, law enforcement and public safety workers. This includes grocery store and restaurant employees.

Many businesses have put extra precautions into place when it comes to sanitary practices and standards. According to Ashton Stuart, sushi roller at Bamboo Sushi & Hibachi Express in Tampa, like most restaurants, Bamboo has switched to no-contact delivery and drive-through services.

“Some wear masks, we all wear gloves,” said Stuart. “Social distance isn’t really an option behind a bar or in a kitchen, so we just all wash our hands and try to be mindful.”

Stuart said business has slowed down, but the restaurant introduced delivery service and is pushing pre-existing online and phone ordering systems.

“Any employees not on salary had their hours cut in half, in most cases. It naturally affects my overall income and since most of my money is tip-based, it affects that as well,” said Stuart. “I already loved my job, but the loyal customers that still come back and check in on us to make sure we’re all okay helps the work feel important.”

Larger companies have pushed extra sanitization standards as well. According to Lauren Wadas, Chick-Fil-A crew member, her store is only operating the drive-through and is ramping up sanitation. Timers go off every half hour to remind workers to wash their hands and change their latex gloves.

“I think it would be better if we were totally closed, but I’ll be working as long as we’re open,” said Wadas. “I live in a community with a lot of elderly people who still come to Chick-Fil-A, and that concerns me. I’m mostly grateful to be there and don’t feel overly exposed.”

Grocery stores are doing the same thing. According to Thanh Nguyen, Publix’s customer service staff member, Publix has taken big strides to increase cleanliness and social distancing during the pandemic. Nguyen said registers, keypads and door handles are wiped down every hour, grocery carts and baskets are wiped down with Q-san consistently, tape markings are used to remind customers to stand six feet apart and cashiers and baggers are urged to use hand sanitizer between customers. 

“It’s honestly kind of scary to go to work and know I could potentially get the virus. I try to look on the bright side of it and think of it as serving my community during this time of need and I’m grateful that I still have a job,” said Nguyen.

According to Nguyen, Publix is holding “senior hours” from 7-8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Store hours have changed from 7 a.m.–10 p.m. to 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Big-box stores are doing the same. An anonymous Target employee said two days a week Target dedicates the first hour of opening to seniors and at-risk people and has been shortening store hours.

“There are precautions being made but I feel like we need to be doing more. We aren’t required to wear gloves and masks on the floor,” said the Target employee. “Also, we’ve been closing the store at 9 p.m. and using the two hours after that to take extra cleaning measures but in reality, we’re just stocking the floor and pulling online orders, as those have skyrocketed this month.” 

According to the anonymous employee, Target has taken sanitary precautions such as making tape marks six feet apart in checkout lanes, rotating checkout lanes for cleaning and wiping down self-checkout kiosks after each use.

“The markers work alright until we get a large rush of people all trying to check out at one time,” said the employee. “The paycheck doesn’t feel worth the risk at all, but I can’t afford to not pay my bills.”

The Target employee said they wear an N95 mask every day, use hand sanitizer every chance they get, wear gloves, keep their distance from shoppers and coworkers as much as possible and use antibacterial wipes to clean every personal item taken into the store.

“It sucks because even with all I’m doing it doesn’t feel like I’m doing enough,” said the employee. 

Taylor Ruschmeier, Instacart shopper and grocery deliverer, said Instacart is making safety kits available to their employees. The kits include gloves, hand sanitizer and a mask. Ruschmeier said the Instacart app also introduced a default setting for workers to deliver groceries to the front door as a way to avoid physical contact with customers.

“There are definitely some nerves there, considering this job is making me exposed to possible germs constantly,” said Ruschmeier. “However, it’s thankfully not terribly bad in my state yet and I also trust my health as a young, active, healthy adult.” 

As the pandemic continues, essential workers are putting themselves at risk every time they go to work. 

Brittany Reed can be reached at brittany.reed@spartans.ut.edu

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