Column: What it’s like being an ‘essential employee’ during a pandemic

Landon Prestwood
Oxford Stories

It’s 5 a.m. on a Monday, and your alarm clock wakes you up for another day that will be spent hard at work. You wake up slowly, check your email, look in the mirror, maybe even brew some coffee.

But something about this “normal Monday” doesn’t feel all that normal.

You look outside of your apartment. The streets are quiet…

Too quiet.

What is usually a busy intersection now looks like an abandoned scene from a Hollywood zombie film.

While on your morning run, you don’t see any new faces. In fact, you don’t see anyone at all.

No more elderly couples going for their morning walk, no more soccer moms with baby strollers, no more families walking their household dogs, no more businessmen in suits, no more anyone.

Your world feels empty.

While watching your 6 a.m. local news broadcast, you’re reminded all too quickly that you’re living in somewhat of a nightmare.

You’re living during something that, just a few months ago, didn’t seem imaginable.

You’re living during a pandemic.

While millions of people in the U.S. are quarantined, there are still millions who have been deemed “essential employees” who are traveling to and from work every day.

According to Fortune magazine, the U.S. federal government defines essential jobs as those providing “life sustaining services,” such as healthcare workers, food workers, law enforcement officers, energy employees, and financial service workers. The list goes on.

I, in fact, happen to be one of these essential employees.

In addition to my studies, I work at a local restaurant chain.

From my experience, this could arguably be one of the most challenging times for the American worker, in the modern era. People, such as myself, are risking their health and safety every day to ensure that their communities are provided for, all while making certain that we, as workers, have a steady flow of income for life’s everyday expenses.

Myself, along with millions of others, are doing the best we can to provide necessary services to the public, while also following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to limit the spread of the virus.

But we’re stuck with the question: Do we value rent, mortgages, car notes, and groceries over our overall health? Or as a middle class Americans, do we even have the option?

A “normal day on the job” as a restaurant employee no longer exists. Every day is different. Some days are so busy we can’t keep up with the influx of orders. Other days we may go hours without seeing a single person.

Our market isn’t stable, and consumers are skeptical.

We wear masks. We were gloves. We wash our hands often, and sanitize after meeting each individual customer.

We spray our pens and other supplies after each use – all while maintaining a 6 ft. distance between ourselves and each customer.

I, along with many other service industry workers, are bothered by it all. In the hospitality industry, it’s normal to form a “friendship-like” bond with each person you serve.

Think about it. Restaurants are filled with birthdays, receptions, parties, and so much more. It’s actually common to make lifelong friendships while working in the restaurant industry.

Now, it’s different.

People don’t talk. People don’t smile. People wear masks and gloves and treat everyone and everything as if they are contaminated. This, of course, is all done with good intention – to reduce the spread.

But without a personal connection and a “family-like” atmosphere, the restaurant industry means nothing.

Hospitality workers and social distancing don’t mix.

Jackson restaurant employee

I think most restaurant industry workers would agree with me when I say the most terrifying aspect of the job is the unknown.

Is my next customer sick? Did I remember to sanitize enough? Can I get the virus from just talking to them? What if I get sick? What if I get someone else sick? Can the virus live on my clothes?

It’s endless anxiety.

Restaurant in Jackson.

As a business, we are struggling. The company I work for, along with hundreds of other small businesses, are doing anything and everything possible to stay open – taking online orders, taking curb-side orders, taking donations for unemployed servers, and even applying for small business loans.

According to the Washington Post, about 70 percent of all small businesses in America have already applied for a Cares Act loan: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. It’s not yet clear how many of these small businesses have been approved.

Small businesses are going to suffer: It’s inevitable.

With these constant worries of the unforeseeable future, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Though it might be challenging, each shift eventually comes to an end.

After I finish a shift, I crank my car, turn on the radio, and wonder things like, “How did this happen?” and “Is this even real?”

Fortunately, as I am on my way home, I usually receive a notification on my phone from a news source reassuring me that this pandemic is in fact real, and that this widespread fear and pandemonium is ironically being referred to as the “new normal.”

So, my “new normal” will repeat itself tomorrow as I wake up in the morning, so that I may play my part as an “essential worker” during this chaos known as the coronavirus.

Landon Prestwood
Landon Prestwood

Landon Prestwood, 21, is a sophomore studying journalism, broadcasting, and cinema. He is a college news reporter for NewsWatch Ole Miss, a student-led media organization.

He hopes to one day have his own television platform discussing breaking news, current events, and everything pop culture. Prestwood enjoys catching up on celebrity news, binge watching reality TV, exercising, and playing with his two dogs, Cooper and Tucker.

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