The Lives of Essential Workers, One Year Into the Pandemic

“We have been called heroes, but I don’t like that word,” Albarran says. “We’re simply essential workers. We do our work as best we can so everyone can have food on their table.”

Hernandez rides a bike full of orders in NYC.

Photo by Hannah La Follette Ryan

Andres Hernandez: DoorDash Delivery Driver, Queens, NY

“This delivery work, yeah, it’s hard. Especially when it’s raining and snowing. Sometimes I get angry that people don’t leave tips. You go a long distance for three dollars, sometimes one dollar. I work from 11 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon, then from 5 to 10 at night. I ride about 50 miles a day on my e-bike. I don’t like it, but I need the money.”

Ravon Jones: Assistant Cafeteria Manager, Dothan City Schools, Dothan, AL

“This job has always been hard work, and because of COVID it’s even harder now. A lot of the staff is quarantined at home, but we still have to go out and feed these kids. They’re not allowed to eat in the cafeteria anymore, so we prepare the food there, pack it into coolers, and deliver it to the different learning pods. The teacher comes out and gets what she needs for her class. Most of the time they don’t allow the kids to come out, but we still get to see them a little bit. Even with masks on they recognize us and know we’re the cafeteria ladies. They wave and say hello. It brings joy to our hearts to give them something that they may not be getting at home. That’s one of the highlights of being a cafeteria worker. Because some of these kids are very hungry. Sad as it may be, sometimes this is the only meal they get.”

Burgos-Jackson prepares to serve. 

Photo by Hannah La Follette Ryan

Nancy Burgos-Jackson: Chef and teacher, Red Door Place, NYC

“Before COVID we all used to eat together in the church soup kitchen where I work. I would go around from table to table to say hi to people. They would say to me: ‘Nancy, I feel like I’m in a restaurant without getting the bill.’ I wanted to cry. Here I am making you a beautiful hot meal; I don’t know when you’re going to eat again, but today, with me, you’re going to eat the best meal in the world. I don’t get that interaction now, but even through the pandemic, I keep going down to the church. I wear my mask. I wash my hands and practice social distancing. And I do my job.”

Pedro Albarran: Pork Shoulder Deboner, Farmer John, Vernon, CA

“Many of my coworkers have gotten sick, and the rest of us are expected to pick up the slack. New people come in but don’t last long. Production has been ramped up. Sometimes the meat starts coming down the line before we have even finished our 15-minute breaks—which are more like seven minutes now, because by the time you remove all your PPE and grab a snack, the break is essentially over. The line never stops. It’s extremely physically demanding work. There are times when we want to go to the restroom, but we have to wait for someone to fill in for us on the line before we’re allowed to go. Morale is very low. Everyone is scared of getting sick, but we try to stay vigilant. The work we do produces the food that makes it to people’s tables. Essential workers across all industries need to be recognized. We want these companies to tell us that we are essential, pay us what we’re worth, and provide us with the working conditions that we deserve. We want companies to stop hogging all the profits.”

Bucknum with some fresh-picked vegetables.

Geoff Bucknum: Farm Director, Sunny Harvest Co-op, Kirkwood, PA

“As the pandemic set in, a lot of farmers decided early on not to plant, thinking that it would just result in loss. We went in the other direction and said, ‘You know, as a Plain sect [Amish] community, what we do is we farm.’ It’s particularly hard for our farmers to isolate and do everything over the phone, but we wanted to serve our customers wherever they might be. Food distributor and restaurant sales contracted massively, but we worked to secure USDA grants to supply food boxes and actually produced and delivered more food this year than any year before. I hope that this year has made people think more carefully and ask: ‘Hey, where does my food come from? Who am I supporting?’”

Patty Estes, Grocery Cashier, Fred Meyer, Puyallup, WA

“We get temperature checks before shifts but we could be asymptomatic from being around thousands of customers every day. And then we’re talking about people who are surviving on minimum wage trying to go to the doctor. I’ve heard stories from coworkers about family members telling them they don’t want to see them because of where they work. They don’t want to get exposed. It hurts. We’re just trying to make a living.”

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