“The only people you have to worry about is each other.”
This line has repeated in my head over and over during the past couple of weeks. It’s the response my district manager gives when I ask her if it matters we aren’t following the six-foot social distancing guideline recommended by the Centers for Disease and Prevention in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
I work at a fast-food restaurant in Seattle ― a city recently displaced by New York City as the epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Since our store can do takeout, the chain sandwich shop where I work has been deemed “essential” and remains open. Our store is situated by some of the major hospitals in Seattle — Harborview and Swedish — and serves many of their medical staff and visitors.
“The only people you have to worry about is each other.”
This has become the line I use to comfort myself when I walk through the doors of my restaurant for another eight-hour shift. It’s also the line that keeps me awake at night.
Every day, I wake up torn between being grateful that I still have a job and being terrified for my own safety. Because I am asthmatic, I’m considered at high risk for experiencing especially devastating or even fatal symptoms if I do contract COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Last year, when I got the flu, my asthma kept me home for a week. I was sleeping with my pillows propped up, windows open, and still barely managed a breath above a wheeze. My job is willing to let me take the time off, but, like a majority of other food service people, I have no paid time off and minimal sick hours to use, so I keep working.
Every day, I do the mental math: How close are our customers to us? Less than six feet? Definitely. Sometimes they are less than even one foot. How many times does someone touch my hand when I hand back their credit card or cash? More than 10 times within a single hour. How many delivery service people do I deal with in a day? Upwards of 20.
For each of these situations, the odds that I could contract COVID-19 if I’m interacting with someone who is infected are moderately high, even though I am taking every precaution I possibly can ― like using gloves and washing my hands constantly.
Every day, I do the mental math: How close are our customers to us? Less than six feet? Definitely. Sometimes they are less than even one foot. How many times does someone touch my hand when I hand back their credit card or cash? More than 10 times within a single hour.
In the last three weeks, I saw a nurse coming in for her sandwich two hours after she ordered it and leaning against one of our dining room tables from exhaustion. She propped up her head as we remade her sandwich, and we had to call out her name three times once it was ready for her. She thanked us for working before leaving the store.
I spoke with a mom from Kentucky who called our restaurant to see if she could organize a catering order for her daughter and others who work in the emergency room of one of the nearby hospitals.
I helped a group of construction workers who had just learned that they were getting laid off but still bought prepaid gift cards from our store, which they then gave to us and told us to use “for the hospital people.”
There is no part of this that is easy.
Some days I wonder why we’re still open at all. Since when is food service considered essential? Thinking about the pictures of empty shelves and the memes about toilet paper hoarders, I wonder, didn’t everyone buy out the grocery stores? Don’t all of these customers have food at home? Why aren’t those people cooking?
My boss informs me that those with corporate jobs at our company stopped working in their offices weeks ago, preferring the safety of their own homes, even before the state-mandated shutdowns. Why aren’t the people deciding that companies stay open putting themselves at risk, too? Why, in industries like mine, are minimum-wage workers the only ones forced to keep exposing themselves to the danger of the pandemic? Some days, I wash my hands so many times they turn bright red.
During our peak hour, we have four workers on the line, which means we have someone to cover every station, but nothing else. We stand three feet apart, at best. I spend most of my shift apologizing for running into one of my co-workers as they go to fetch something from the back. I worry about the possibility of one of my co-workers being positive for COVID-19 and not knowing it, and how easily I could catch the virus. Sometimes we send someone out to make a delivery at one of the hospitals, and I worry about the risk of contracting the virus during one of those visits, too.
When I pointed all of this out to our district manager, she said she would be more than willing to tell corporate about my concerns, but they would cut us down to a two-man peak to provide some distance between us before they would close the store. And if they did that, it would mean we would struggle.
Sometimes an order comes in for one sandwich and we have 25 minutes to complete it ― so that’s easy. Sometimes orders come in for 25 sandwiches and we have minutes to complete them before a Door Dasher is yelling at us for the order ― so that’s not so easy.
All we have is the decision to stay and pay our bills or the decision to quit and fall even deeper into debt than many of us already are. Most of us live paycheck to paycheck, with so little — if any — money left over that the thought of opening a savings account is laughable.
I worry about what will happen if I continue to complain about the lack of social distancing. I worry about the people my co-workers interact with when they’re off the clock. I worry that I’m putting my trust in people who could be putting my health at risk. I worry constantly.
There are no unemployment options for those of us who still have a job but decide the risk of working it isn’t ultimately worth it. All we have is the decision to stay and pay our bills or the decision to quit and fall even deeper into debt than many of us already are. Most of us live paycheck to paycheck, with so little money ― if any ― left over that the thought of opening a savings account is laughable.
What happens if someone comes to work sick because they, like me, can’t afford the time off and they don’t have any health insurance, so if they go to the doctor, they’ll need a way to try and pay down those medical bills? What happens if someone comes to work and they have the virus but they’re asymptomatic? What are the odds of it spreading through the crew to me?
I’m scared that my chance of getting sick increases every day based on who my co-workers interact with and how many customers we have that day. I’m scared that my lungs won’t be able to handle it. I’m scared that showing up at work could very well be me signing my own death certificate.
I picture the empty grocery store aisles while I’m wrapping a sandwich and do more mental math: Odds of me surviving if I contract COVID-19? Potentially low. How long can I afford to survive if I decide to stop coming to work? Maybe three weeks, if I’m lucky. Will I ever be able to make up the lost wages if I do? Probably not.
So, I continue to scrub my hands until they’re cracked and bleeding. I continue to obsess over how close customers are to us and notice their every cough and sneeze as they wait for their food. And I continue to think about the men and women who work in our corporate offices but who are now safe at home while I tell another customer to have a nice day.
Kelsey Taylor is a writer and poet. She lives in Seattle and can be found on Twitter at @poolofmetaphors.
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