On March 23, 2020, the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order was signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It stated that all residents of Michigan needed to stay in their homes—unless they were getting necessities, caring for loved ones, or working an essential job. But what was it like for those essential workers? While the news typically showcases the lives of adults who worked essential jobs throughout quarantine, many Forest Hills Eastern students and alumni braved the virus as well, working essential jobs throughout the extent of the “Stay at Home” order.
Most worked in retail, grocery or fast food. Each of these jobs were met with different difficulties as the virus prevailed for six long months. Conner Watson (‘20), an Eastern alumnus, has worked at Panera for more than 2 years, and continued his employment throughout quarantine.
Working was “annoying but understandable…” said Conner, describing his experience. “[There’s] not a lot of change, [we’re] mainly just being more sanitary and using more disposable materials,” he claims. “…When corona first hit, we [only] did delivery and to-go [orders], so we didn’t use any dishes…the dining room was completely closed…Now we have opened up to about 50% capacity in the restaurant.” No matter how hard employees work to control their environment, the issue of “no-maskers” prevails. “One specific issue is that we get a lot of people coming in and refusing to wear masks,” he said. “We normally ask them to put one on or leave, and if they don’t we get to kick them out.” However, because he had been working at Panera for a while, and was familiar with the staff, Conner described the overall stress levels to be manageable.
Jay Anderson (‘20), another Eastern alum, worked full time at Bed Bath and Beyond throughout all of quarantine. “We closed to the public [halfway] through March,” stated Jay. “We started using masks and gloves before closing to the public, and it was super weird because we were all nervous about customers and getting sick from them…I felt safer working because we were closed to the public, but it was really strange.” Through the uncertainty, Jay found stability in their coworkers. “It was a good time to bond and become really good friends with my coworkers,” they claimed.
Ashley Bileth (‘19) is also an Eastern alumna who worked during quarantine. She worked at a local D&W, ironically commenting that her first day was the day before the “Stay at Home” order was enacted. Despite the pandemic, she continued to work weekends throughout all of the quarantine.
“During my first few weeks at D&W, [there were] masks, social distancing, plexiglass between the cashier, and the customers weren’t there. We…sanitized carts, baskets, and touchpoints, and we shut down our bottle return,” Ashley explained. She further illustrated how the grocery store could get quite stressful at times. “Overall, customers were anxious, but there were some people that thought the pandemic was fake, or argued with me for wearing gloves or sanitizing surfaces. Rules obviously became stronger. I…watch[ed] the news and [saw] the introductions of plexiglass and mandatory social distancing and wearing masks [firsthand].” Beyond the physical stress that came with the pandemic, employees were further impacted in unprecedented ways with the advancement of social justice movements. “One interesting story was when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening,” explained Ashley. “When the one happened, I wanted to go, but I had work that night. That same night, Mayor Bliss put a curfew in place after the damage to public property [occurred], and we had to close the store six hours early. It was very surreal to get the alert about the curfew on our phones…the whole store’s setting and vibe had completely shifted. It was like something from The Purge,” she exclaimed. “Working during a pandemic is not easy,” Ashley reiterated. “I worked more than forty hours a week, and every shift had so many mean and judgmental customers. I would have weeks where people would yell at me for wearing a mask, or get mad because the bottle room was closed, or would throw things and drinks at me. It was chaos, stressful, and anxiety-inducing…” While Ashley’s experience at D&W was more hectic than Jay’s, a redeeming comparison is seen in how both alumni Jay and Ashley discussed how their coworkers were a big part in keeping calm in the eye of the storm. “My coworkers really helped make the job fun,” claimed Ashley fondly. “I’m so appreciative of them.”
For all three alumni, working was a chaotic and different experience. From the constant insanity of costumers, to the constant updating and changing of rules, essential workers saw it all. Though quarantine officially ended, the coronavirus is still at large, with millions of essential workers continuing to risk their health everyday. As we continue to heal as a society from the virus, make sure to give extra thanks to local essential workers—they’re working hard in their communities, and propelling us toward better days.