Pandemic redefines ‘essential’ as workers brave coronavirus

Mario and Dave behind the counter of Downtown Wine and Spirits in Somerville.

As the coronavirus spreads its respiratory distress all over the world, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has issued an advisory asking that all “non-essential” workers remain home from work in order to stymie the spread of the virus. The types of workers deemed essential may come as a surprise to some – sometimes even to the workers themselves – as many are paid an hourly wage that doesn’t exactly scream “my boss considers my work essential.”
It turns out that grocery store workers, convenience and liquor store clerks, Dunkin’ Donuts workers, and gas station attendants are part of the essential workforce that makes the Commonwealth go ‘round. As office workers settle into their work from home routines, low-wage workers of all stripes step out into a world transformed by pestilence, and transfixed by the fear of it.
Some people said that they count themselves lucky to be among those  considered so essential that they must risk coming down with a severe illness so that their jobs don’t go unattended to, because it means that their cash flow won’t be interrupted. No matter what kind of virus has been unleashed on the world, the rent still needs to be paid, the car still needs to be filled with gas, and the car insurance continues to need coverage.
“I’m going in because it’s my job, and with a lot of people worried about not being able to work, I’m still capable,” said Steve McCloud, the manager of Downtown Wine and Spirits in Davis Square, Somerville. “So I have a semi obligation to go to work.”
He notes that a handful of employees have decided not to take their chances, and have opted out of spending eight hours a day handling money and interacting with the public. He’s certainly not going to hold it against them either.
“We’ve lost employees,” McCloud acknowledged. “None of them have contacted COVID-19 as far as I know, but they’re cautious. If someone doesn’t want to come into work because of this…I respect everyone’s decision.”
While he’s made the decision to keep showing up to a customer service job one couldn’t exactly call lucrative (although he certainly makes more than minimum wage as a manager), he’s hyper aware of the danger now inherent in what was previously a very low risk job, and he takes necessary precautions.
“That’s honestly something that crosses my mind everyday. I wash my hands more everyday, I carry hand sanitizer, and I wear gloves when I handle money,” he said. McCloud went on to note that a lot of people are apt to overlook people who work in the service industry on a day to day basis, and the people who work those jobs deserve a raise, even when there’s not a massive event such as a pandemic underscoring the importance of their jobs.
“I think often in this society people underestimate the significance of retail workers, cashiers, people who stock the shelves…you’re not considered important until you’re really truly needed, such as in a time like this…I think anyone deemed essential needs a pay bump.”
McCloud says that some of his co-workers who have stayed on have received raises due to the events of recent weeks, and he’s heard of other local businesses doing the same.
According to wage workers elsewhere, however, not all employers have the best interests of their employees at heart.
According to an employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, the Walgreens on Kempton Street in New Bedford has been tolerating behavior that puts the health and wellbeing of its employees, as well as their families and the general public, at risk.
According to the employee, despite the fact that two pharmacists tested positive for COVID-19 and were sent home to self-quarantine for two weeks, Walgreens did not require other employees to be tested, nor did they require that they be quarantined for two weeks. The anonymous employee says that Walgreens did a “deep cleaning” of the store and opened the following morning.
“They said we should be fine because we’re around exposed people all day,” the employee said. “They said that we should all be fine because we weren’t exposed. They consider being exposed working within six feet of someone for ten minutes or more,” he said, adding that people who met those parameters were self quarantined. He said that he doesn’t subscribe to Walgreens’s definition of “exposed,” and he’s concerned that he might have been exposed.
“I close the store, I handle the cash, I have to count all the money that goes through the pharmacy…we all assumed the store was going to close for two weeks and we were all going to be quarantined.”
He went on to say that he’s at risk due to his own health issues, and a number of his family members are as well.
“I have diabetes, and I was at home with my mom, she has a heart condition and diabetes [my wife] has asthma. I don’t want to be responsible for bringing that home. It’s not worth the $14 an hour.” 
In response to a rtequest for comment, a Walgreens representative said “We are looking into this and will provide a statement as soon as possible.”
A healthcare worker employed at a Boston area hospital says her employer has put new protocols in place to try and protect employees from the virus. For example, the hospital used to hire a lot of temporary workers from staffing agencies, but now for the most part, they only have regular staff on duty.
“People who [come in] from agencies are not working, they’re not being called in just to protect people from exposure,” she said. She also noted that although some retailers have taken measures to try and prevent people from panic buying, news of medical supply shortages elsewhere have worried her. “There’s a national shortage and it’s really scary,” she said. “It makes it difficult to do the work. You have to get as much done in one room as you can so you don’t go into a different room wearing the same equipment…you’re trying to avoid unnecessary redundancies and get everything done in one swoop, so it takes a lot of planning.”
She went on to say that people ought to remain calm when the number of confirmed cases spikes, because they’ve been there for a long time, we just haven’t had the means to know they existed.
“I think what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a surge of more sick people in the city, and I don’t think it’s because it’s just [now] coming. They’re slowly getting the ability to test more people, so the amount of people sick is going to skyrocket…I think they’re going to find that a lot of people are already sick…I think there’s going to be an influx all over the place once people realize they’re sick.”
She also noted that while she works in healthcare, a field many see as high risk, she’s often more concerned with the people elsewhere in the city when it comes to exposure.
“I think the possibility of me getting exposed might increase, and not necessarily even at work. There’s a higher possibility of me getting exposed outside of work once people decide it’s ok to relax.”
She said she’s concerned about a second wave of illness gaining a foothold once people start to believe that the pandemic is under control, and after they’ve been self-isolating long enough to have some serious cabin fever.
“I think that’s where you’re going to see a second spike in illness…I don’t think that we’re going to be able to contain people for very long. I think as we slowly go back to normal life, people are going to be more lax about being clean…I think it will become more of a normal thing, having outbreaks of the coronavirus. Maybe not as bad, but I don’t see it just disappearing.”



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