The pandemic has marked a complete shift in how we work. Millions have lost their jobs. Some companies have moved completely online. Other workers have been carrying out essential jobs since March — and many of them have not had the “luxury” of staying home.

The plights of some of these workers have been well-documented: Health-care workers, including doctors, nurses, assistants, environmental services and security personnel, for example, have been working on the front lines to combat covid-19 directly. The majority of these health-care providers are women.

Many of us have also interacted with grocery store and retail workers, delivery people, Instacart shoppers and warehouse employees, who make it possible for those of us who can work from home to do so.

The efforts of so many essential workers have kept the world running throughout this period — bartenders, restaurant workers, janitors, sanitation workers, air traffic controllers, industrial meat and agricultural workers, countless others. Many of these industries have also been disrupted, leaving workers to do more with increased risks and fewer resources.

There are an estimated 30 million front-line essential workers who are working in these key areas and cannot work remotely. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said these essential workers, as well as those over 75, should be next in line for the vaccination.

At the end of a year that has been unlike any other, The Lily caught up with some essential workers in lesser-known industries about what it’s been like to work through this time.

Deborah Blackwell, 53

Manager of New Life Cleaners and Laundry in San Diego

Business has slowed in general for Deborah Blackwell’s laundry business in the pandemic, but commercial accounts — including hospitals and hotels — have still needed linens, uniforms and other items cleaned.

Although this business is necessary, worries about the coronavirus persist. Blackwell said that cleaning linens for several large hospitals in San Diego has caused anxiety. She and her two dozen employees also have to physically go into work, and her store is located under a gym that has remained open throughout the pandemic. Blackwell said she sees clients working out without masks, which just adds to the stress.

Airbnb and catering companies are “just about our biggest industrial clients right now, which is kind of telling,” Blackwell said. She has been concerned about large gatherings, parties and weddings during the pandemic. In her seaside town of San Diego, she said, short-term rentals are “doing great business.” Meanwhile, Blackwell has started cleaning houses to supplement her income as she hopes for some sort of government relief or stimulus.

Ultimately, she knows the work they do is important: “We kill covid.”

Leah Hernandez, 57

Home health aide in Los Angeles

After a slow March and April when she had no work, Leah Hernandez is now working seven days a week caring for clients in their homes. Having missed out on income during the earlier days of the pandemic, she’s signed up with a second agency for caregivers to work as much as she is able.

The hardest thing these days, she said, is that her patients, who are mostly elderly with dementia, and therefore considered high-risk, are confined to their homes. “We only go out if you have to go to the doctor’s appointments, and that’s all. We’re very limited,” she said. Before, she could take her clients outside to the park, to the grocery store, to physical therapy appointments.

Leah Hernandez, a home health aid, and Gail, her former patient, at a restaurant in Chinatown in Los Angeles in 2017. (Courtesy of Leah Hernandez)
Leah Hernandez, a home health aid, and Gail, her former patient, at a restaurant in Chinatown in Los Angeles in 2017. (Courtesy of Leah Hernandez)

Confinement can lead to paranoia with her patients, she said, whereas when they could leave the house, they were able to socialize and their attention could be diverted for some time.

Five days a week, she works with a retired doctor who has dementia; Hernandez cares for him and his wife. Hernandez said she feels fortunate that he understands the general situation when he’s lucid. “So he knows we are risking our lives being out there,” she said. “I’m healthy enough to be doing the work and helping out.”

Madeline Castillo, 24

Nursing assistant in a senior nursing home in New York City

Even more than others, Madeline Castillo has to be vigilant about all of her behavior outside of work. She works in a nursing home, which is extremely vulnerable to the spread of the virus and where the age of the residents can make the virus more fatal. (In just one example, at least six nursing home residents died in November after some workers attended a 300-guest wedding in Washington state and contracted covid-19.)

“It’s scary as far as [thinking about] getting sick and knowing that your family could get sick. But not only that, you don’t want to get the patients sick,” she said. “I would feel so bad if I got sick outside and then I brought it in to the patients and then it spreads. I come from work, I go home, I take off the clothes, I go straight into the shower.”

She doesn’t socialize on the weekends, Castillo said, and hasn’t seen her friends for months.

When she started her job in August, she said there was an added layer of stress — literally: Wearing so much personal protective equipment (PPE) in the heat of a New York City summer was brutal: “We’re wearing like all the gear — the shield, the gown, the masks. It’s flaming hot. While you’re working, you’re just profusely sweating.”

Errin Moore, 43

Owner/operator of an appliance repair business in Wichita

Errin Moore runs the operations of Able and Ready, an appliance repair service she owns with her husband, out of a “mobile office.” The job also requires her to go into the field with her husband, a repair tech, which includes being inside customers’ homes.

“We’ve been busier than ever, but it’s also nerve-racking,” she said. “One home is ultra-concerned about the pandemic and super high anxiety, and the next is completely dismissive and not concerned at all. The discrepancy is so vast that it’s mind-boggling.”

Moore said that she, her husband and her employees implement the same safety standards for every home — “doing our very best to make sure we’re not spreading it from one home to another.”

She continued: “If we were to contract covid-19, it’d be terrifying financially.”

To mitigate some of this anxiety, Moore and five colleagues created a business training and compliance platform called EdgUSource to try to streamline a covid-19 protocol for various companies. Moore said they partnered with a female entrepreneur whose online platform can make information interactive: It breaks down CDC guidelines, then offers training and techniques for implementing them in any business.

Emily Ball, 28

Disability advocate in Wallingford, Conn.

“I believe a lot of people would see my job as easy and unimportant, but that’s simply not true,” Emily Ball said, referring to her work at PATH Parent-to-Parent/Family Voices of Connecticut, a nonprofit that assists the families of disabled people. Ball has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair. Other technologies, including Zoom, allow her to work from home.

For Ball, her job is essential to the lives of many families in a dire time. “My job helps families of Connecticut who are sort of lost in the shuffle. They have a disabled child, some may experience other things like food insecurity. If we can’t help [directly], we give referrals,” she said.

Emily Ball, 28, a disability advocate, at her home in Wallingford, Conn. (Emily Ball)
Emily Ball, 28, a disability advocate, at her home in Wallingford, Conn. (Emily Ball)

But it hasn’t been the same with covid-19 as a factor. Before, her work “would’ve involved going out to different organizations and explaining what we do. People haven’t been real receptive so I haven’t been able to do my main, intended duties,” she said. Instead, she recently became certified to teach other organizations about telehealth, which has been “very beneficial for this particular time.”

Hannah, 26

Nanny in Seattle

Hannah, who lives in northeast Seattle, lost her nannying job earlier in the pandemic. In September, she started a new job with another family. (She spoke on the condition of using only her first name to speak freely about her current job.)

Coronavirus has vastly impacted her work, because she has very little privacy when it comes to her personal life, she said; she works in the family’s home.

“I have to report my personal life to them in a really intense way. I live with four people, and when I got hired, I had to report my roommates’ jobs, how responsible they are, what they do, if they have significant others or not,” she said. Three out of five of the people living in her house have a significant other, including Hannah, and the bathrooms and visits are all discussed and planned.

“And then we just have to negotiate all of the extra stuff that we do. It’s just like a big game of trust. Any time that I do anything, they know about it,” she said.

For example, Hannah canceled her Thanksgiving plans with her parents, who are in her approved bubble, because they had just flown in planes for her grandmother’s funeral a week before the holiday.

“It was definitely the responsible choice, but it was very stressful and personal — negotiating,” she said.

Instead, her employers invited Hannah and her boyfriend to stay in their home for a week while they flew to Sun Valley in a private plane to visit family. She said it turned out to be one of the best weeks of 2020. And thankfully, no one in her house or bubble has gotten a positive coronavirus test, which she attributes to the high level of precaution and communication.

Being a nanny while kids are learning remotely and parents are home has also changed the job. The 5-year-old girl she cares for is having a hard time adjusting to social isolation.

“We are at the point where the young girl will just go into her room, which is adjacent to her mom’s room where she works, and just cry,” Hannah said. “Her mom’s co-workers will be like, ‘Oh, looks like it’s a rough day over there,’ and the mom will just have to keep working without ever finding out what was wrong,” she said.

Veronica Delgado, 28

Wine buyer at Lincoln Fine Wines in Venice, Calif.

Veronica Delgado, a wine buyer at Lincoln Fine Wines, a family-owned business in Venice, recalled customers in March who “cleared out the store because everyone was freaking out that everything was going to be shut down.” Delgado said this was “initially quite a shock.”

These days, there are eight employees at the store. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve found themselves dealing with customers who didn’t want to wear masks inside or refused to wait patiently outside during an earlier transition to curbside pickup.

“Like grocery store workers, I feel like when they probably started that job, they didn’t think they were going to be on the front lines,” Delgado said of the other employees.

Being a woman seemed to play into some of the aggression she and two other women co-workers faced, Delgado said: “Unfortunately, in some parts of our society, men don’t like women telling them what to do.”

Luckily, Delgado said, they felt supported by their boss. Likewise, she and her women co-workers “decided to support him as well and stick around and help out his business because this is a family-run store. We’re definitely more like a family here.”

As the pandemic continued, Delgado also noticed class differences play out in orders, she said, noting that the store generally has a regular clientele that covers a broad socioeconomic range. The store itself is located in a neighborhood where Hollywood and tech fortunes are juxtaposed against some of the largest homeless encampments in the city.

“We saw a higher spike in purchases from people that were a little bit more wealthy versus those everyday customers that would just come in and buy their bottle for dinner,” Delgado said. “That customer kind of disappeared because they had to start saving up their money because a lot of them lost their jobs or had to move away.”

The store is lucky, she said, to be doing well financially this year, despite all of the tumult. It’s busy enough that they even brought on someone for seasonal help.

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