Facesof COVID-19 in Chicago

The Essential Workers Who Don't Feel Essential

By Ashonti Moffet and Charles Tharpe |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020

Faces of COVID: Essential workers Edition

Essential workers in America are widely gratified for their work during this pandemic. When referring to “essential” workers, many recognize healthcare workers: doctors, nurses and hospital staff. 

But what about the grocery store employees? The local baristas? 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47.5% of Illinois employees are employed by  “esssential industries”, such as healthcare, food service and public transportation workers.  Many of them are among the lowest-paid population in the state. These essential workers expose themselves to COVID-19 each day, wondering when will this pandemic end. 

Amber Carrizales, a barista supervisor, said she thinks that she is forced to work because the government has failed to protect Americans. She believes that the American government could have provided another stimulus check.

“My job has done everything right. I want the people to take it seriously,” Carrizales said. “I shouldn’t be here [at her job], I have to be. The government won’t pay my bills.” 

Carrizales said that her company has provided the right amount of protection to their employees, but consumers typically put her and her colleagues at risk. 

 “I’m constantly having to tell people to stand six feet apart. I’m paranoid, I feel like a germaphobe because people will go to the bathroom and I won’t hear the blow dryer. Did you wash your hands?” she said.

Map: Unemployment rate by state (October 2020)

The coffee company asks that all employees complete a COVID-19 form prior to their shift to protect against the spread of the virus. When asked if she felt safe at work from COVID-19, Carizzales said, “I would feel safe if I were at home. If this is as serious as scientists say it is. I’d feel safe at home.”

“They paid us without work,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, they paid every single employee. The only stores that remained open were drive-thru, [redacted company] still gave everyone their average rate at home.” Carrizales said that within a few months, people returned back to ‘regular’ life that drove her company to re-open stores. 

“I feel a lot of things. I’m not essential, coffee is not essential. I’m blessed to have a job but I feel like it’s stupid. Why am I here? Why am I here during a pandemic?” 

Carrizales said that she will continue to work to provide for herself and her family, however, she doesn’t believe her safety should be jeopardized over a cup of coffee. “Food, transportation, and healthcare; those are the essentials, that’s all it should be.” 


Evan Houser, a loss prevention retail worker, fears for the safety of his elderly family members when he returns from work with a major retail company..

 “When you have to come home and see an older parent or an older aunt and uncle; you have to realize you’re dealing with 1,000 people during an eight-hour shift,” he said.

“There’s an extra worry there, I could’ve run across someone who exposed me to COVID. It’s asymptomatic for some people,” Houser said, “They don’t know, or they haven’t been tested.” 

He said his company tries to protect its employees by providing them with home thermometers. Like most companies, this retailer prefers for employees to test their own temperature before arrival, to prevent the potential spread of COVID. 

Houser said that his company has tried to compensate them during this pandemic by providing bonuses and hazardous pay. However, since the increase in pay has ended, he believes that they could have paid them more. 

“They were doing hazard pay for the first three months of COVID,” he said. “I guess they presumed things would ‘die’ down, but it hasn’t. They offered us a $200 bonus, which in reality, is taxes. I guess they tried, but it could’ve been better” 

 Houser said that some consumers do acknowledge him as an essential worker, “I appreciate those people who spend two seconds to say thank you but it’s not something we are used to on a daily basis. 

According to Google Trends, hazard pay was one of the most searched terms over the summer: 

The hospital dynamic has completely shifted during the pandemic. Although they’re not required to be tested daily, they have to take many other precautions before beginning their shift to keep themselves and others safe.

When Victoria Belt, a Patient Care Technician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, was asked about the dynamic of her job during the pandemic. 

She said, “It’s a lot to even get dressed to go into the patient's room.” Northwestern requires employees to wear masks, face shields, PPEsuits, and goggles all while they’re in the hospital. 

“When we come in in the morning, we have to answer three questions, we do a COVID check-in; it’s totally different going into work nowadays.” 

Belt tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 11, 2020 after catching it from a patient. She was required to call the COVID-19 hotline and quarantine for 14-days before being able to return back to work. 

“With me having grandparents, elderly grandparents that live here with me and then I have a 11-year-old daughter,” she said. “So it’s kind of challenging to go to work every day and then I know I have to come home and expose my family.” 

Belt said her job could better support its employees by having all patients tested before they’re allowed to enter the hospital and offering continuous hazardous pay until there is a vaccine for COVID, bringing the pandemic to an end. 

“You should be screened before you even have a doctor's appointment. Go somewhere and get screened because you know how many people you can expose coming into the clinic and you have the virus, you’re positive and now you exposed others. You may not face any symptoms, but or it may not affect you...someone else can catch it and it can kill em.” 

Heather Jackson, University of Illinois at Chicago’s director of  environmental health and safety office, said that all employees should have a face covering and practice social distancing. 

“Essential employees should wear a face covering at all times, practice physical distancing of at least six feet, and frequently wash or sanitize their hands throughout the day.” Jackson said. “It is important to maintain appropriate physical distancing at all times, but especially during meal times or break times where a mask is being removed to eat or drink.”

Jackson said that with the current “second wave” of COVID underway, if you feel ill, stay home.  

There are resources who can help employees dealing with employment and COVID-19 issues.

Illinois Legal Aid Online, ILAO, is a statewide nonprofit which provides assistance to individuals who cannot afford Legal aid. ILAO provides self-help tools that help over 100,000 people each month with up to date law changes and clauses. 

Illinois Legal Aid has a blog dedicated to working during COVID and options available to essential workers during this time. Teri Ross, Illinois Legal Aid’s Executive Director said  there has been an “enormous” increase in the volume of users who are seeking SNAP food stamps assistance and a giant uptick with Spanish language users since the pandemic has started. 

 “The numbers are showing that so many of our service workers are a part of the Latinx or Hispanic community and the numbers are showing that they are the most impacted group.” 

The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) has a set of eligibility requirements for those who receive unemployment benefits: 

“If you quit, you might not receive benefits but you could make the argument that you felt unsafe” Ross said. Since COVID, there have been some other benefits put into place for people whose health is susceptible to contracting the virus and whose [children’s] daycare and schools have been closed. Those are all new options, It’s still unclear, you just have to apply and make your case” 

On Oct. 30, Gov. J.B. Pritzker placed a non-essential business curfew on restaurants that allowed outdoor dining only. With the change of seasons, many restaurant employees are being furloughed again due to lack of service. Teri Ross said they may re-qualify for benefits. 

“For those people who went back to work and were working [in restaurants], they need to go back to IDES and let them know that they’ve been cut again.” 

For essential workers who may fear going to work because of pre-existing conditions, Ross said that you have options:

“For people who have an acknowledged disability, you have rights to request accommodation (and that’s even before COVID) “she said. “I would encourage people to back it up with medical records. You do have rights. Employers are obligated to provide a safe environment for our employees.” 

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