Photo courtesy of Alan Light / Flickr

Bare Essentials

I like my job. I like gathering in the walk-in fridge with my favorite coworkers whenever we have a three or four-minute break from darting around the sweltering kitchen. I even like the holes in my black, non-stick shoes—a testament to the hours spent dutifully scurrying around with food for the residents at the nursing home I work at.

I like my job, but lately, my job has been getting increasingly stressful. 

Since all meals are now delivered to enforce social-distancing precautions, the facility’s normal dining hours have been slashed. This means instead of working for a normal shift’s four hours of pay, we’re working about two. If we pick up two shifts, whether or not we can stay clocked in and get paid for the dreary hours between them is at the discretion of whichever supervisor hasn’t been recruited for the day to take temperatures in the intake line. 

I am luckier than most. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the widespread suffering of not just the over 160,000 Americans who have died, but also millions of people part of a new category of employee that we’ve come to recognize as “essential workers.”

The word “essential,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means “of the utmost importance.” Some of its synonyms include things like “basic,” “indispensable,” and “necessary.” 

Someone with these descriptors in their job title, you’d think, would be important enough to have at least some sway over their safety. Someone so valuable should have more choices than “make money or stay safe from the coronavirus.” After all, they’re essential. They don’t just need businesses; businesses need them. 

Yet you wouldn’t know it from the way things are going. Amazon—an infamous powerhouse of employee mistreatment—has come under fire throughout the pandemic for keeping multiple warehouses open even after workers tested positive for COVID-19. In Oakland, a McDonald’s worker who contracted the coronavirus along with her 10 month-old baby is reporting that her franchise manager made sick people come into work. When they were at work, she claims, they had such inadequate personal protective equipment that employees were forced to make masks out of coffee filters and dog diapers.

I feel quite certain that the situation for essential workers is unlikely to get better on its own. We have made laws requiring certain employers to provide paid sick leave during the pandemic, but there will always be employers who find a way to skirt the laws. Recent observation has also shown that many workers aren’t aware of the full rights these kinds of laws give them.

So, what will help essential workers in the meantime? Slowing down the pandemic, which is still rapidly surging in many states.

What will help slow down the pandemic? Wear. A. Mask.

As students return to campuses across the county, as well as many states implementing phased reopenings, another threat looming over the heads of essential workers (and the people being pushed back into their now-open, nonessential workplaces) is the infamous Karen, enemy to servers and retail workers everywhere. I’m sure most of us have seen the viral videos of entitled white women (and many men too) refusing to wear a mask in stores that require masks. 

What angers me the most about this is the fact that these people argue the validity of their masklessness by screaming about their rights and American freedoms as if not abiding by CDC-prescribed protective measures only affects themselves, when in fact, it’s putting others in danger. While masks do protect the wearer at least a little bit from germs in the air, they do much more to keep the infected from spreading the virus if they don’t know they’re sick. In other words, if everyone in the Whole Foods is wearing a mask except for you, you’re not “sucking it up and taking a risk,” you’re putting everyone else at risk. The world has already had a Typhoid Mary…we don’t need a “Coronavirus Karen.”

Still, they yell, “you can’t tell me what to do! This is America!”

Yes, this is America, the place with the most COVID-19 cases in the entire world. At the time this article is being written, the state of Florida has had more coronavirus cases than the country of France. More than 161 thousand people in the U.S. have died from this pandemic, and many of them have been the essential workers keeping the bare bones of the country running. It’s also important to recognize that the risks associated with this disease are disproportionately high for communities of color. In New York City, for example, up to 75% of the essential workers are people of color.

I like my job, but I’d like it more if the 90-year-olds I’m feeding could see their families again. I’d like it more if I wasn’t risking my life. So if you’re one of the people who won’t wear a mask into the grocery store, you no longer have the right to use the phrase “essential workers.” Turn off those corny commercials honoring the grocery store workers and food servers because, clearly, you don’t find them essential enough to protect their lives.

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Meaghan Wallace