Teens serving as essential workers

Caroline Bielen and Nate Lechner

As a result of the current pandemic, many Americans have lost their jobs or are now working from home. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 40 million unemployment claims have been filed since mid-March, which is equivalent to 25 percent of American workers. 

However, this is not the case for “essential workers,” who, according to Fox News, mostly work in health care, law enforcement, public safety and food production. By working amid a pandemic, these workers are putting themselves at a higher risk to be exposed to the virus. Some of these essential workers are even students at WHS.

WHS junior Grace Greenwood is considered an essential worker as a Chick-fil-a team member. She was given the option to take a leave of absence when the pandemic began, but she decided to continue to work. Although she was scared at first, she no longer feels unsafe at work because of Chick-fil-a’s strict safety procedures. She said, “[Our temperature is taken] before we start working, every 30 minutes we wash our hands and change gloves, and we disinfect everything at closing.”

Lila McMahill, another WHS junior, is also an essential worker who volunteers as an EMT for the Mountainside Rescue Squad. She said that her job consists of going to people’s houses when they call 911, assessing their situation and taking them to the hospital if necessary. She said that some of the people she has transported to the hospital have tested positive for the coronavirus, but she is not scared of catching the virus since all of the workers are required to wear protective gear.

It honestly didn’t cross my mind [to stop working because of the pandemic]. Working in healthcare, we are considered essential and [we] understand that when we take the job.”

— Alexa Gates

According to Forbes, 42 percent of all coronavirus deaths are tied to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In spite of this, Alexa Gates, a junior at Bishop George Ahr High School, in Edison, NJ, has worked as a concierge at an assisted living community throughout the pandemic. She said, “It honestly didn’t cross my mind [to stop working because of the pandemic]. Working in healthcare, we are considered essential and [we] understand that when we take the job.”

Although she may have been putting herself in danger by working, Gates explained that her employer enforced many safety precautions. She said, “We were provided with the necessary PPE (masks, gloves).  We also screen every employee for temperatures and symptoms prior to starting shifts, and have restricted all non-essential visitors. The residents remain in their apartments to prevent any communal spread, and their vitals are taken every day. Additional disinfecting protocols have also been put in place.”

Even with the safety protocols in place, Gates recently tested positive for the virus, but she is unsure exactly how she contracted it. She said, “My experience has been different from those who are severely ill with this virus. I have had no symptoms and have been able to keep up with my schoolwork.”

Despite being asymptomatic, Gates has been isolating at her home, but she plans to return to work after 14 days. She said, “These residents have become like family and I couldn’t imagine not showing up for them when I am healthy again.”

The pandemic has not only significantly affected teens who are essential workers, but their employers as well. Business owners are trying to have as few people in their establishment as possible, which limits the number who can work there on a daily basis. Also, because of the new distance learning schedule, students have a hard time finding shifts that don’t conflict with classes. 

Josh Wang, the owner of Manhattan Bagel, explained that his whole employment system has changed due to COVID-19, leaving many student employees with few opportunities to work. Wang said, “Due to the strict safety guidelines that need to be followed, I am only looking for full-time employees, and, unfortunately, teenagers cannot meet those requirements.”

Although safety restrictions have forced some teenagers to leave their job, those who are able to continue working have been commended for their work. Greenwood said that many people have thanked her for working and for her bravery. She said that she is proud to be an essential worker during this hard time and to “give people a sense of normalcy and yummy food, since yummy food is essential.”

 Gates has also experienced a lot of support for doing her job. She said, “The outpouring of love and respect from our grateful residents, family members and the community has been overwhelming. It is a great feeling to know what a difference it makes showing up and simply doing your job.”