What It's Really Like to Be an Essential Worker In the U.S. During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Grocery store employees, food manufacturers, pharmacists, and other women on the frontlines share what life is like for them.
By Cassie Shortsleeve
April 22, 2020

In an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19, which has sickened more than 1.5 million people worldwide (as of press time), many state and local governments have issued stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders and closed "non-essential" businesses.

Yet with millions of Americans at home trying to work remotely or home-school their children, there are also millions of "essential" workers on the frontlines. This, of course, includes doctors, nurses, and hospital staff among others in the healthcare industry, and they arguably face the brunt of COVID-19 risk and exposure.

But we also can't forget the other countless critical businesses and essential workers keeping America afloat right now. These are in industries such as government, food, water, waste, manufacturing, and hygiene, and they have also been deemed "essential" by federal agencies and local governments.

If you're wondering why some seemingly "non-essential" businesses are operating in some parts of the country, while not in others, that's because state and local governments have authority over which businesses can and can't operate. What's more, the federal government suggests that its list of "essential" workers is only an advisory guideline—and that local authorities should "add or subtract essential workforce categories based on their own requirements and discretion."

Regardless of what your area has determined to be essential, these 16 women from around the country are, in fact, still working—doing important jobs that keep life as we know it going.

To better understand what they are going through right now, and pay homage to their sacrifices that help keep the rest of us safe in the comfort of our homes, we wanted to share what it's really like being an essential worker during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020—through their own voices.

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Here's a look inside these essential workers' "new normal," including what scares them the most, how they handle the stress of working through a pandemic, and what they think will help most right now.

Lizzie Plender, 23, a laboratory research technician at National Jewish Health in Denver, CO

Lizzie Plender

"I'm currently part of a nationwide project to discover the genetic factors that may predispose someone to a worsened COVID-19 prognosis. It's really overwhelming but it's going to make a huge difference in how we move forward in understanding this virus. As the leading respiratory hospital in the world, we get hundreds of patients daily who battle serious respiratory diseases and are at extreme risk for COVID-19 complications, so I've really had to consider how my presence at the hospital could potentially impact this vulnerable patient population. We all wear masks when roaming the halls or in close proximity to any patient areas.

While I'm grateful to be part of the research that could change how we move forward with this pandemic, I have to be honest and say I'm also just absolutely exhausted.

My partner is also immunocompromised. He's young and healthy otherwise, but at the end of the day, he's still at a greater risk.

As someone who is young and healthy myself, it's easy to have the mindset that 'I probably won't get sick, and even if I do it likely won't be bad, so I'll just continue living my life the way I want.' But it's important for people like me to consider that not following social distancing strategies could have a serious impact on the people around us. This is not a time to be selfish. We are all in this together and need to look out for each other."

Becca E., 26, a flight attendant based out of Boston, MA

Becca E

"Before COVID-19 hit the U.S., I'd work for 14 or more hours a day with airplanes full of people. I didn't think twice about greeting customers with a smile or handing them extra snacks just to be nice. Walking past someone in the aisle routinely means brushing past them with some form of physical contact. It wasn't unusual to hug a coworker or hold onto an infant so that a mom traveling solo can use the bathroom.

Now, I'm in the aisle only to hand out water and one snack—no interactions or conversations. Plus, the number of people allowed on flights is capped and customers are being seated away from each other. The wet wipes provided by our company lasted only about a week and myself and many of the other flight attendants are bringing our own cleaners to ensure our workspace is safe—plus I have an autoimmune disease, so I need to be extra careful. (I've actually requested a temporary leave, which the company is offering to some employees.)

I usually like to keep things interesting on a typical flight by cracking jokes, but now I don't even want people to come too close to me—including coworkers. This industry can be lonely when you first start because you're away from your family, but you're often able to visit friends/family you wouldn't see so often on layovers. Now, layovers feel like being in jail (if a hotel is even open to us as an option). You're subject to lockdown measures, depending on where the layover is, and I can only imagine what a layover in New York would be like right now.

The government has declared that airlines are an essential business, but flight fares have dropped as low as $16 and we frequently overhear passengers bragging about their escape 'just to get out of the house.' There is no recourse for people flying who are non-essential, and so we're still flying multiple flights per day because of people traveling for no real reason. On the other hand, we're also transporting doctors and nurses to target areas such as New York to help with the pandemic.

The best I and we all can do right now is try to stay safe and hope that people are only flying when absolutely necessary."

Jessica Nouhavandi, 35, lead pharmacist and CEO of Honeybee Health, an online pharmacy in Los Angeles, CA

Jessica Nouhavandi

"For pharmacists, there's no such thing as working from home. For the past few weeks, I've been consistently working 14-hour days in order to make sure everyone's prescription is filled and shipped on time.

We've also seen a huge increase in demand for our services during the pandemic. Since we're an exclusively online pharmacy, we're able to safely deliver patients' medications to their door, allowing them to practice social distancing while getting the medications they need.

As doctors are increasingly overwhelmed, I've also been answering questions from patients about more general health concerns, how to prepare for possible drug shortages, and so on. I've always believed pharmacists have the privilege of forming a close relationship with patients, but this has been especially important during this crisis when so many people are looking to healthcare experts for guidance.

Since I'm at a greater risk of being exposed to COVID-19, I've stayed away from all family members. But this is my job and I take it seriously. I went into this profession because I wanted to help people get the medications they need to survive, and that call to duty is more urgent than ever."

Megs Kotlarz, 38, a nurse practitioner in an emergency room in Melrose Park, IL

Megs Kotlarz

"Our emergency department feels like a movie scene these days. Hazmat suits. Everyone wearing masks. Panic. Unknown. Masks are locked up. We are now using masks that were once disposable for our entire shift. I've had to pay out of pocket for protective eyewear, surgical caps, reusable cloth masks, and hand sanitizer. Every shift, I show up to changed policies and we huddle to discuss what the newest treatment plan is. I wear a mask, eyewear, gloves, and a hat to see every patient. If they are suspected COVID, we wear gowns (and respirators if we are doing specific treatments on them).

After work, I change my shoes before getting in the car. I undress in the garage and put my scrubs right into a hot wash cycle. I also shower immediately. It's mentally exhausting. I've cried in my car on the way to work. I've cried on the way home. I see my coworkers exhausted and on the verge of tears. It's so heart-wrenching talking to families on the phone and trying to explain that there are no visitors allowed. I can't imagine sitting at home and having no idea what was happening with a loved one. We are their only support and that takes a toll on us.

I've received tons of well wishes and gifts from friends. To see that people understand this is difficult for us helps you feel less isolated. I just wish there was more I could do. I've never felt so helpless. I wish they could see what a shift is like in the ED when there are eight patients gasping for air and only one physician and one middle-level provider (me) to take care of them. I always trained for this but never thought I'd use that training. Now I'm ready for anything."

Lia Angeli, 30, sign language interpreter for Parliament Tutors in Virginia Beach, VA

Lia Angeli

"Currently, as much work as possible has moved to telework. Telework for interpreters—known as video remote interpreting (VIR)—is not new, but is widely unaccepted by the Deaf Community and is not considered to be best practice. Unfortunately, in some cases, this has now become the only possible way to provide access to interpreting. I want hard-of-hearing consumers to be flexible in accepting VRI during this time and not requiring their interpreters to enter situations that are unnecessary.

I've also been assigned to work with employees within the U.S. Department of Defense, which means I have been providing in-person interpreting as well. I'm working in classified government spaces so I need to gain access by swiping a badge and showing IDs, both of which often bring me in close contact with things or people who could be contaminated. I carry around Lysol wipes and stay as far away from others as much as possible while still being able to effectively do my job."

Lyndsay Borko, 25, customer service representative at a large grocery chain in Jersey City, NJ

Lyndsay Borko

"Things at the store have been changing almost daily with each new development. We're required to wear gloves, unable to take returns or exchanges (for fear that if an item has been in your house it could be contaminated), and cannot have more than one person in the customer service area at a time.

Our break room has been closed. Open registers have to be every other lane because people can't be within six feet of each other. Sneeze shields were installed at registers. We can only operate at 50-percent capacity (so now there are long lines to get into the store) and we began closing at 8 p.m. to match Jersey City's curfew time and allow staff time to stock the shelves. Shoppers are taking items before we can even put them on the shelves.

We're already working with a skeleton crew because so many people are either isolating or are not working because they're scared. I feel obligated to still work because if everyone says they're too scared to come, no one will be able to eat.

Grocery employees are scared and working long hours. People are constantly yelling at us over limits or the return policy. I'd say, if anything, consider kindness."

Joy Symonds, 39, owner of Symonds-Madison Funeral Home in Elgin, IL

Lori Sapio

"My husband and I own a funeral home in the Chicago suburbs. Pre-COVID-19, we could meet with families in person and discuss their loved one's story for an obituary and help arrange a visitation, funeral, memorial service or celebration of life.

Now, COVID-19 has drastically affected how we do our job. The big funeral gatherings of the past are now on hold. We're working with families remotely and we can't plan any funeral services that involve more than 10 people. We've made webcasting services available, but most families are choosing to delay their service. Honestly, I don't blame them.

Our industry is also hit by the PPE (personal protective equipment) shortage but you don't hear much about it. We use items such as face shields, respirators, and goggles, when transporting bodies, for example. Luckily, we had some items on hand, such as a box of N95 masks, and were able to order some additional items, but respirators arrived without filters (making them useless). We have a request with our local health department to get more PPE but nothing else has materialized yet, which is stressful.

We have also arranged funerals for three COVID-19 patients. My husband does the transport of bodies, and every time we get a COVID-19 case, I just pray he stays safe, since there are reports about the virus potentially spreading even from the deceased. My heart breaks for families who lose their loved ones in a hospital setting right now. In one case involving a COVID-19 patient, a family had to say goodbye via video. Then they came to us, and we had to say they couldn't have the type of funeral they wanted and needed.

We hosted a Facebook Live this week where we went over ideas on how to grieve together when you have to be physically separate. I shared ideas about having meals and music together via Zoom, creating a memorial in your home or outside in a garden, and crowdsourcing a photo album or memorial video."

Maria Colontrelle, 37, front service clerk at Publix in Florida and member of Sunday Strong, a non-profit that aims to increase physical activities in adults with intellectual disabilities.

Maria Colontrelle

"Before COVID-19 we were always busy, but we didn't have people coming in buying all of the toilet paper, paper towels, and cleaning supplies. Now, we have to put a limit on these kinds of things.

My job used to include bagging groceries and helping people bring bags to their car. We now have glass protecting the cashiers, so I bag customers' groceries and put them in their cart, then step six feet away so they can come up to the register to pay. I don't take anyone to their car anymore. My manager gave me a mask to wear and Publix has given me a gift card for my work during this time. It's hard, but I'm trying my best to get through it.

I don't want to get coronavirus, but I also love my job and want to do it. I tell people to stay at home if they are older and use services like Instacart or Shipt if they don't absolutely need to come in."

Jennifer Szakaly, 40, owner of Caregiving Corner, a geriatric care service in Charlotte, NC

Jennifer Szakaly

"Before COVID-19, I would have taken clients to doctor's appointments, visited them at home or in care facilities, or even checked on them at the hospital if needed. But with all the safety precautions and measures, my visits look really different now. Some clients have Zoom calls and some have me visit from outside a window.

I've pivoted my business to include making sure clients have what they need to survive: groceries and medicine. Now nurses disinfect medication boxes that are dropped off at the door.

I've also started something called 'Happy Mail' with kids who live on my street. I give them the name of an elderly client and we mail them drawings. Just a simple act of a drawing or a hand-written note from a child makes my clients so happy.

I'd like people to have more awareness of those who are going through this alone. There are a lot of older people who are alone and don't have anyone nearby and their needs are being overlooked. Don't underestimate the importance of little things. A solitary older person might be over the moon to open up a card, for example. Reach out and have some type of connection."

Kristin Holleran, 39, director of plant operations at Tillamook County Creamery Association, a dairy in Tillamook, OR

Kristin Holleran

"As director of plant operations, I'm in charge of ensuring we adhere to the Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs), which are in place at all food manufacturing facilities to ensure food safety. Pre-COVID-19, this meant a lot of (in-person!) meetings. I also helped host plant tours to show customers and employees where cheese and ice cream are made.

Tillamook has seen a spike in demand (a 50-percent increase in both our cheese and ice cream last month), as shoppers show 'stock-up behavior.' Since food manufacturing is a critical infrastructure sector, now more than ever we need to keep our operations up and running while keeping employees safe.

We're handling all meetings via phone or video conference; supplying wipes; and limiting non-essential visitors to our plant. Most employees are working overtime. We've purchased and distributed thermometers to plant employees so that they can take their temperature before coming to work. We've instituted premium pay for essential employees, too. And while we had to temporarily close our creamery, we were able to retain all those affected employees and train them to help with other parts of our operations.

I want the role of farmers and manufacturing to be better recognized. Without farmers, producers, or manufacturers, there's nothing to put on the grocery store shelf. When you go to the store take what you need, but remember others are in need. The supply chain will recover more quickly if we don't panic and hoard food and supplies."

Leigh Burrow, 37, shipping store employee in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL

Leigh Burrow

"Pre-COVID-19, I was helping customers pack and ship items to loved ones and businesses. We're still providing the same services but I wear gloves and masks, which were made for me by a customer, actually. We also have curbside pickup and drop off. The store is small, so we put tape down for customers to stand behind so they can social distance.

My husband works in sanitation 60 to 70 hours a week and is also an essential worker. We come home and shower right away. It is hard to go shopping some days because we start work early and finish late. It's also a little stressful to see customers who are still coming in for what I would consider non-essential shipping and returns because they're putting others at risk. I love that we're open and can help the community, but please stay home if you have a nonessential shipment that can wait."

Kara Sliwoski, 27, aquatic biologist and district manager at SOLitude Lake Management in Shrewsbury, MA

Kara Sliwoski

"As a company that manages stormwater ponds, drinking water reservoirs, and other critical water resources in our communities, we've been deemed a service that is essential for the protection of public health during COVID-19.

SOLitude's team of freshwater management professionals provides many important lake, pond, and wetland services, including water quality testing, aquatic plant and algae control, shoreline stabilization, and lake mapping. Without these continuous services, our nation's water resources could become susceptible to developing deadly algal blooms with potential toxins, invasive species infestations, flooding, and many other disastrous problems.

In light of COVID-19, I've transitioned away from the office setting to focus on outdoor projects that allow me to abide by social distancing requirements. Instead of supporting my team from a desk, I can now be found working primarily on the water. The transition in my role is challenging and rewarding. Compared to other essential services like nurses or pharmacists, I'm lucky to spend most of my time in the solitude of the outdoors.

Ultimately, my (and my team's) biggest challenge at this time is keeping up with the demands of Mother Nature. Though our communities have withdrawn in many ways, our need for clean drinking water, efficient stormwater collection, and healthy water resources never ends—and the environment is always changing. This unparalleled time in history has reinforced to me the importance of being proactive. You can never be too prepared in the face of a challenge."

April Kindt, 36, chef for Brigaid, a company that brings personal chefs into public school lunchrooms in New York City

April Kindt

"Prior to COVID-19, my days were spent cooking and serving scratch-made school lunches, training staff, and interacting with students at two partner schools in The Bronx. After New York City schools closed, one of our partners, Encore Community Services, a senior services organization, reached out to see if we could provide assistance in their kitchen.

Encore provides daily meals for close to 1,000 senior citizens through their home delivery program as well as in their senior center dining room. Their entire kitchen staff was given two weeks off to quarantine but after the two weeks, only a few staff members were ready to come back to work, while the rest remained at home due to COVID-19 symptoms, caring for children or family members, or because they were at high risk.

I have now been working alongside a few of their dedicated kitchen staff members. Due to COVID-19, a significant number of seniors have requested to join a meal delivery program. Many of these seniors are homebound and can't get to a grocery store, so they're dependent on Encore. In the kitchen, we wear masks at all times and keep at least six feet of distance between us. The kitchen is small, like most New York City kitchens. This means that in order to maintain distance, there can only be a few staff in the kitchen. With not as many people in the kitchen, many tasks take longer than usual to complete, and the cooks have to hustle more than ever to get it all done.

Despite all of this, the entire staff has remained positive. In two days' time, they produced more than 2,400 meals for homebound seniors in New York City. Although employees are still smiling, the distancing is wearing on them. (In the kitchen, we typically give handshakes, high fives, and hugs.) I miss the staff and students at our schools in The Bronx but until I can return, I'm honored to be a part of the Encore team, grateful to be alive, and happy to help."

Susie S., 58, real estate agent in Boston, MA

Susie S.

"Before COVID-19, I was doing a lot of meetings in person—with people who wanted to sell their homes, photographers, floor-plan companies, and staging companies. I was also sending painters, stagers, professional organizers, and landscapers to meet with clients to prepare their homes to go on the market and showing buyers multiple properties in their price range in different towns. I was attending home inspections and closings, too.

Now, business is down about 40 percent compared to this time last year in the greater Boston area. People are pushing the pause button. My typical day now is offering buyers virtual tours of homes and virtual open houses. Facetime and Zoom have become a big part of the business. Closings are being handled by lawyers electronically and deeds are being registered electronically. Buyers still want to walk into the house they're going to buy and get a feel for it, which only makes sense but also isn't always possible right now. Life's basic needs are food, water, and a roof over your head, which makes real estate essential so we'll keep trying to find people homes as best we can."

Dina Ortega, 31, general manager with Clean Rite Center in Portchester, NY

Dina Ortega

"Pre-COVID, I worked regular shifts in a laundromat in the Bronx, managed a team, processed wash-and-fold orders, reported equipment issues, ordered supplies, and handled customer service concerns. Now, we've centralized our wash, dry, and fold service into one hub in the Bronx in order to keep up with increased demand while preserving the quality of service, and I'm managing that.

We also began offering free laundry service to first responders. I've been working to implement a new software platform and app-based payment system while overseeing orders from locations all over the city. We all wear masks and gloves, wash our hands constantly, and do not come within six feet of each other. We have a cleaning crew come in to sanitize and disinfect the facility.

In some ways, it is tough to be out there with everything going on, but I'm relieved to be working in a safe environment and I'm grateful that I'm still working, as I see many others struggling after being laid off. It also feels good to know that I'm responsible for helping so many people who don't have washers and dryers in their homes, who rely upon us as an essential service. It's especially rewarding and uplifting when healthcare workers participate in our free laundry program. I have so much admiration for the risk they are taking every day, and it's amazing how appreciative they are."

Tricia Shields, 36, educator at MyVillage, an in-home childcare start-up, in Parker, CO

Tricia Shields

"I've been with MyVillage, a mom-founded childcare start-up that helps people open early education programs in their homes, for nearly a year now. I revamped my basement to get started and initially took on six kids, though some parents have since chosen to keep their kids at home right now. We start our day with temperature checks. The kids enter one at a time, so I can scan their forehead with a handheld thermometer. Luckily, all of them are fine so far.

I'm running out of Lysol spray, so I'm trying to find other ways to make my own disinfectant. I disinfect while the kids are out playing and then spray after I'm done for the day. One of the moms of one of the children I watch is a physician's assistant, and she gave me handmade masks that I use when I have to go to the store. Recently, she had a temperature of 100, so she kept her son home, which I appreciated. My husband and I feel really blessed to both be working. We're behind on our mortgage like everyone else, but we're okay.

I'm most sad for my eight-year-old. She loved her teacher and now I'm trying to homeschool her and run a childcare program. I always feel like I'm not doing enough. Some people have an abundance of time, but I have even less now. I see a therapist and think all educators should. I did that before the virus and it's wonderful."