If you are working right now, face-to-face with the public in any way, you are a front-line worker. If you are a server in a restaurant, you are just as at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 as hospital workers. Probably more at risk, to be honest, because at least hospitals are fairly sterile environments and they have tons of protocols in place, and you are not walking in the door without a goddamn mask on in any hospital in the world right now. But hey, you wanna go sit at a bar and yuk it up with your friends, boisterously talking and laughing and spewing your plague spittle everyfuckingwhere. You want to drive from a hot-spot state (here’s looking at you, Florida and Texas, just two of the license plates I saw this weekend on a multitude of cars) all the way to my tiny-ass town, population ~795, and shop in all our stores (or, you know, at least walk in and out of every one and touch every fucking thing you can get your filthy hands on) and eat in all of our restaurants and shop in our grocery store and gas stations.
I can’t even go to the only grocery store in my town because the parking lot is always so full and no one is enforcing maximum occupancy limits or masks. It’s impossible to socially distance there. It only has 4 fucking aisles.
I work in a restaurant. When the governor first banned indoor dining, I was just taken off the schedule after a couple of weeks. No one contacted me for almost 2 months. I reached out several times like, “Hey, I’m available, would love to work…” Crickets. Then, with 5 days of notice, the governor says restaurants in my region can re-open at 50% capacity just in time for Memorial Day. I agreed to return to my prep job under the condition that I could work in the mornings and be out of the building before the dining room opened. This was fine at first, as it wasn’t actually busy enough to warrant me being there at opening time. For a couple of weeks, all good. But then it just got busier and busier and I’m staying later and later, up to 2 hours after opening. I even went in earlier a couple of days this weekend, hoping I could escape, but it didn’t work. Every minute I’m in that building with more and more and more people, with everyone under the sun walking in and out of the kitchen, what’s social distancing? It’s hard enough for me to stay 6 feet away from the one other person I work with in the morning, so when there are suddenly 4 kitchen workers and 3-5 servers all walking around the kitchen, bumping into each other, no one wearing masks (in the hour or so when they all show up before we open).
My anxiety is through the roof. I asked my doc to increase my Buspar dose and I’ve been taking Trazadone for a couple of months for depression. In a lot of ways, I feel more level than I ever have, but in other ways I feel worse.
So, here’s my thoughts on front-line workers. All of us who were laid off or had our hours severely reduced when our employers had to shut their doors but we’ve now returned to work, even in limited capacity, we are putting our safety, health, and well-being on the line to make money for someone else. Oh sure, you bartenders might be killing it in tips, but you also might be killing a loved one when you go home tonight. A girl I work with said the other day, “Gotta make that bread.” And it hit me, just then. That’s the lie, isn’t it? That WE gotta make that bread. No, no. Sure, we’re getting paid, but not as much as the wealthy business owners, hm? And let’s not even fuck around right now - if someone owns a business and you work for them, they are wealthier than you, so don’t come crying about small businesses and mom-and-pop crap.
I make 14 bucks an hour. That’s what my life is worth to them. Do you know what happens to them if I get sick and die? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I mean, sure, they lose the best little prep cook ever, but they’ll just hire someone else as quickly as possible to fill that vacancy and keep the wheels turning on their business. That big ol’ scare tactic worked on some of you like a charm, didn’t it? OH MY GOD WE ALL HAVE TO GET BACK TO WORK BECAUSE THE ECONOMY! Look, with the extra $600 a week in unemployment (which I’m still getting even though I’m back to work) and with the stimulus checks, they proved to us that they didn’t actually need us to be working to provide us with a basic income.
I know that not everyone is as privileged as I am, but I came out way ahead in this pandemic, I’ll tell you that, and I know a hell of a lot of other people who did, too. People who work for shit wages were suddenly making more than they’d ever made before because of that extra $600 a week. Some people called us lazy. I can only speak for the people I know, but I can assure you, we are anything but lazy. All of my friends wanted to go back to work so bad, dangers aside, because most of us don’t know how to function without a job. We’ve worked our whole lives, since we were 14 or 15 years old. We didn’t know what else to do. Some friends struggled with feelings of inadequacy because they suddenly felt unable to care for their families because they were collecting unemployment rather than working for it. They felt guilt for taking it as if they were getting it because they were lazy when in all actuality, they had zero control over any of it. They felt like freeloaders, like they should have been working and earning that money. I did not feel any of those things. I wanted to go back to work because I was bored and I missed my co-workers, not because I felt some sense of guilt or even some sense of loyalty to my employers. I couldn’t care less about them, honestly, because I know that I am nothing more than a cog in their money-making machine, completely dispensable.
Some of us started gardens or made art or started an online pyramid-scheme-nail-polish-sticker business. I now have 4 sets of nail polish stickers I’m not sure what to do with because I love my friend. Before that, it was Usborne books. I have coloring books and nothing to color them with because I love my friend. I also spent my entire time in quarantine making at least small donations to as many cat and animal shelters as I felt like on any given day. I have lived in poverty nearly my entire life, but I was able to find what feels like a slightly higher purpose during quarantine and with my newfound riches (a total exaggeration, the extra $600 a week was basically what I would have been making if I’d been working full-time instead of sitting at home). I adopted a kitten and planted a patio garden (with far too many tomato plants, but I got carried away at the nursery) and painted watercolors and watched far too many TV shows on some streaming service or another. I also smoked a hell of a lot of marijuana just to keep myself semi-sane most days. I counted my blessings, so to speak, every day. Instead of worrying about not being able to get a haircut or eating out, I focused on more time with my kids and my own interests. Was it easy? Nope. It’s still not easy. I struggle with terrible depression and feelings of impending doom. Anxiety levels that I haven’t experienced in the nearly 2 years since I started taking Buspar. And the crying, oh my, so much crying, every day, the crying.
Some people lost their goddamn minds over not being able to get a haircut in a salon, and some people lost their goddamn minds about not being able to eat in an Olive Garden dining room, but really… fuck those people. Why should we service people risk our lives for Karen’s all-you-can-eat salad and breadsticks? Why are our lives worth less than Karen’s? Why is it okay for Karen to do whatever she pleases, go wherever she likes, touch everything in sight, all without a mask on, while we work and scrape and sweat and risk our health and well-being for low wages and no health insurance? Gotta make that bread, huh?
But who is eating that bread at the end of the day when you’re on a ventilator in an ICU? Who will care for your children when you’re gone? I promise you, it won’t be your employer.