By Edgar Mendez
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Although many of us continue to practice social distancing and work or stay at home, scores of essential employees remain on the front lines, risking exposure to COVID-19 every time they leave their residence.
A month ago, we talked to some of them, and today we check in on the group of essential workers who shared their stories with us. (Editor’s note: The names of individuals and some details have been withheld or altered to protect their identities and jobs. The stories have been edited slightly for clarity.)
‘It’s not as scary anymore’
Lisa, a chef/supervisor at an assisted living facility: One month ago, according to Lisa, seven residents at her facility had been taken out for COVID-19 symptoms. Other staff members had gotten sick as well. She works at the facility with her daughter.
Update: Four out of the 12 people who had been taken out of the facility for the virus have died and the rest have returned. Another has passed from cancer. Everyone that has come back has to have their own room, so no roommates. They cannot come out of their rooms until they have not had any symptoms for 72 hours.
We have to feed them on disposables and anyone who enters their rooms has to be covered fully. A few more staff have contracted the virus, including another one of my people in the kitchen. We pretty much lost half the staff at one point, though many are starting to return. At this point for me, it’s not as scary anymore.
But there are still certified nursing assistants and aides that are in constant contact with the residents and still worried for their well-being. We had a crew come in and fog the entire building. We are constantly cleaning and disinfecting. It seems like we reached our peak and now it’s hopefully getting better. With all the residents being quarantined in their rooms and on their floors, no one is really around the kitchen and dining area, so that’s a plus.
Some supplies are getting a little bit easier to order such as face masks and gowns. I have a problem now getting certain food items from my distributor, so that’s not fun. But all in all, things are more calm around the workplace. The only thing all the staff is upset about is not getting hazard pay or some kind of raise for the ones who have been coming in since the beginning.
It’s definitely not fair that we get nothing extra for putting our lives on the line and also our families’ lives to take care of these people.
At home everyone is still good. My oldest daughter and I are still the only ones going out. My 14 and 13- year-old gave up on their online schoolwork. It’s like they’re in the depression stage of this quarantine. They really miss school. My 14- year-old starts high school in fall and is worried about jumping from this to that and not finishing eighth grade.
As far as opening some places back up, I mean if you take the necessary precautions, it should be fine. I still have no plans of doing anything but home, work and the store for necessities for a while. People are crazy out there!
‘I still have anxiety’
Linda, a public health nurse: Late March: “I sit on the edge of my bed thinking … is this the day? Will I bring it home today?
Update: I still have anxiety, but not as much as before. Now it’s more about symptoms. Oh I coughed and it was dry. Is it COVID? Headache. Arm twitch with pain. Runny nose. COVID? I am a supervisor in a clinic and part of the anxiety I had before was also related to keeping my people safe without proper supplies. Mostly, disposable gowns are lacking. We use white lab jackets instead. We have plenty of surgical masks, face shields and gloves. But we are running out of disinfecting wipes. We keep disinfecting supplies on lockdown. People have to ask when they need alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes.
We reduced our hours and only see patients with conditions needing immediate attention. I was talking to one of the other nurses and she said she’s feeling less anxiety too. I’ve also heard of several people (including myself) who have had meltdowns. We need to remind ourselves that these are extraordinary times. As we are on the front line, I think we always have fear of getting coronavirus. Luckily, we are a specialty clinic and don’t have to worry about people coming to us because they are sick with COVID-19.
I would like to see restrictions in place longer. I don’t think things are calm enough yet, but I also realize there are people who need to pay rent, make car payments and other bills. I enjoy being in lockdown after a stressful day. I hope banks, landlords and others will consider this the period where “time stood still” and will have mercy on debtors and say, “never mind those three months you are behind, we’ll just forget it’s tardiness.” At some point we will have to move on – even with COVID-19.
We had plans for adding services at the clinic, so I have begun pushing for those again. Why wait three to six months when things won’t be much different? Someone posted on Facebook, “I’ve never felt so blessed, or terrified about going to work.” Yeah, that.
‘I won’t feel at ease or safer until this is all over’
Orlando, a welder: It was rumored that COVID-19 had just claimed the life of a coworker.
Update: Not that much has changed. Worry and fear follow us around daily. Especially knowing a virus is out here killing people. The day we last spoke, I went into the emergency room to get checked for COVID-19. My family and I were so worried that I had to take the initiative to make sure I didn’t have the virus.
I mean, I was working in the same work area/station that the other employee that died of COVID-19 was in. So after the hospital visits, I had to self-quarantine. I returned to work after two weeks. The company has taken SOME steps since then.
They have face masks available when a worker needs them, and they have some at the main door. They do temperature checks every shift.
The company also confirmed that the employee died due to COVID-19. As of right now, I firmly believe we should continue the “safer at home” order until we find something that will stop COVID-19 or slow it down. As far as whether I feel safer than I did a month ago? No. I won’t feel at ease or safer until this is all over.
‘So very thankful for our healthcare workers’
Maria, a Walmart worker and tax preparer: Maria has not had the opportunity to hold her first grandchild who was born a month ago .
Update: I still have not met my granddaughter. I am so looking forward to it. I am around too many people to take that chance with her life. At my tax preparation company, they have done a really good job on keeping us safe. Walmart has stepped up as well. We have masks and gloves that are supplied by them. They also close at 8:30 p.m. every night to give us a break from customers, time to put things away, and to stock and clean. The store gets really messy and it’s sad. We have really good customers, but there are some who are rude and treat you badly.
A lot people are ready to get back to their regular everyday life. They are missing getting their nails done and hair, and fishing and going to the bars. But then there are the ones who need to go to work to pay their bills to take care of their family. I am proud of our governor for trying to save lives and keep us safe. I am also so very thankful for our healthcare workers. You all are amazing. We all really need to work together so we can get back to some kind of balance.
‘I don’t feel any safer now than I did a month ago’
Jennifer, Amazon delivery worker: “It’s a little scary going to work, having to be in the warehouse where a lot of other people are and touching cars and packages that other people are touching.”
Update: The driver-to-route ratio at Amazon is still high because of so many people out of work. Amazon has actually updated their app for drivers stating that you have to take your temperature, and that face masks are required now. I think it’s too soon to open up our state. I don’t feel any safer now than I did a month ago. If it wasn’t safe a month ago, what makes it so safe now? People are still contracting the virus.
‘It is too soon to open up the state’
Ofelia, a staffing consultant: Although happy to be working, Ofelia was worried about infecting her family with COVID-19.
Update: My husband and I are still working through the pandemic. We make sure we are taking all the necessary precautions once we come back home so we don’t put our children at risk. We’re only conducting phone job interviews at my staffing company at this point. I think that it is too soon to open up the state. But I do feel safer now than I did a month ago, with more stores practicing social distance and better hygiene.