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Some ‘essential’ workers don’t feel safe going to work, can’t stay home

(Photo by Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

Businesses deemed “essential” have been permitted to stay open during the stay-at-home order in Washington state. But some workers think their employers are stretching the definition of essential, and feel like their health is being compromised at work.

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“I do not feel safe going to work. I’m 65 years old and it frightens me,” said Mary, not her real name, who works at Fred Meyer. “I work in apparel; there is no one shopping in apparel right now. The apparel department, in my opinion, shouldn’t even be open. On the last day I was at work, I was cashiering and at the front door sanitizing the grocery carts as people came in. It’s great that they’re doing that for people, but that put me right at the door with everyone that came in. Everybody.”

Lisa, not her real name, also works at a Fred Meyer.

“It’s kind of stressful, emotional, you feel like you have to watch out for yourself a little bit because they’re not keeping track of how many people are in the store,” Lisa said. “We don’t have the sneeze guard at the registers. That’s one thing that’s bothering us.”

Trader Joe’s is monitoring how many people can enter a store. There’s a line out front and when one person leaves, they let another person inside. Some stores, including PCC Markets, have installed glass sneeze guards between the cashiers and the customers.

“Some customers are so annoying, they’re shopping for things that are not essential,” Lisa said. “We sell furniture and clothing. Yesterday, some lady really made me upset. She’s sitting in the electronics department, right next to the associate who is helping her download her pictures or something. She was in there for like an hour! What are you doing? We’re stressed enough coming into work just so you can have your ‘essentials.’ It’s people’s way of getting out of the house. I don’t know, it’s very stressful.”

She said the store is often packed in the morning and she’s had to ask customers to keep their distance from her. Lisa wants to remind people to only come in for what they really need, that shopping for fun puts the employees’ health at risk.

Mary is set to retire in a couple weeks, so she asked her supervisor if she can use her sick days to stay home and protect herself until then. Her request was denied.

“I have a lot of banked sick time because I’m not the kind of person that calls out,” Mary said. “Actually, before this happened I had only called out sick one day in seven years. I have 120 hours, but I also have a conscience that tells me if you’re not really sick, you shouldn’t call out. But on the other hand, my family is begging me not to go to work. My sister called me practically in tears the other day, begging me not to go to work.”

If she quits early, she’ll lose her pension. Mary believes all seniors should be allowed to use their sick days now, if they don’t feel comfortable coming in.

Coronavirus is also affecting some relationships. Yesterday, a woman told me her boyfriend has stayed away for weeks because of her exposure to the public.

“I have a coworker with a boyfriend, it’s ruining their relationship, too,” Lisa said. “People are scared to be around us.”

KIRO Radio has been receiving messages from many essential workers who don’t feel safe at work, but most don’t want to be interviewed out of fear they’ll lose their jobs. A King County Metro bus driver wrote in to to say that some of the buses get so packed, there’s no way to keep people six feet from each other.

“Our Supervisors just sent a message that said, ‘Do not deny service because of social distancing,'” he wrote. “Our buses are ‘sanitized’ once at the end of the shift. It’s not a thorough spraying and wiping, its a person walking quickly and spraying and moving on. We were offered a 3oz. bottle of hand sanitizer and a pair of single use gloves weeks ago. Some were given sanitizing wipes, but many haven’t seen anything. I’m not looking forward to what is usually a job I love.”

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In positive news, Starbucks sent out a letter vowing to pay all of its workers for the next 30 days, whether they’re working or not.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like William Shatner, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig.

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