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The Life of an "Essential" Worker - 05/12/2020

Ever since I started my career when I was 21, I always wanted to be rewarded for my results at work. I had been a straight A student in high school and college, and when I graduated I wanted to feel the same kind of joy I got from a perfect report card. I was in sales for my first five years, and did pretty well. I won some awards, and my pay was directly tied to my performance. But once I left the sales arena, I was a "staff manager," and my results couldn't be tied directly to my personal efforts. I often felt disconnected from my work, and wondered if I was really making a difference.

After I had to retire at age 42 due to Lupus and a serious back injury, I struggled for a long time with what to do with myself. I couldn't work full time, but I wasn't so completely disabled that I couldn't do anything at all, either. I tried writing, which I love but which hasn't paid well, and I tried mystery shopping, which is fun but also low-paid. Then I started acting, and for a long time I thought that would be my career for the rest of my life. I never made more than $6000 in a year over the 16 years that I was acting, but by the time I retired from it in 2016 I was getting commercial and prime-time TV auditions regularly, so there was always the possibility of hitting the "big time." But my health started failing badly in 2016, and suffering from chronic auto-immune hepatitis (which just mean my Lupus had caused my liver to be inflamed all the time), I decided to retire, and leave the expensive and stressful LA life behind.

So I moved to Tucson, for its beauty, dry climate, and low cost of living, and my health improved dramatically. I loved it here from the beginning, and found that although I didn't miss acting, I still needed something to occupy my time. I wrote a memoir my first year in Tucson (which remains unpublished, but I'm going to work on it), but I really needed to make a little money. I tried retail sales, but the low pay and the incredible toll on my body from even working only eight hours a week convinced to do something else. I found a new calling in substitute teaching, and was doing that with joy about two days a week when the pandemic broke out. My last teaching day was March 6. Our schools were officially closed the next week, and will be through the end of the school year. So realistically I won't be able to teach again until after school re-opens, or around August.

To make ends meet in the meantime, I have done three jobs that are designated as "essential" during the pandemic: home caregiver for seniors, merchandising/restocking for retail stores, and delivery driver. Each of these has enabled me to feel connected to and personally responsible for the results of my work. But each has also presented unique challenges, and I'm now only doing one of them.

The first, senior caregiver, is very much like a babysitting job, only your clients are adults - one friend calls it "senior sitting." I had been doing this for almost nine months when the virus hit. I really enjoy it. The work is pretty easy - mostly light housework, making a meal or two, driving clients to appointments and errands, and just being a companion - although it doesn't pay very well. The only change after the virus was that I started wearing a mask and gloves all the time at my clients' houses. But I was only working six hours a week by January, and it just wasn't enough money. So I took a job with a merchandising company, restocking books and magazines at stores like Walmart, CVS, and Frye's (grocery). The money was good, and they wanted me to do at least 20 hours a week. But from the very first couple of days I realized it was going to be too physically demanding for me. The boxes of books and magazines frequently weigh about 40 pounds each, and I might need to push six of them along on a cart from the backroom to the floor, and then try to lift them to put them on the shelves. I was in agony, mostly from my back and legs, and not even able to put in 15 hours the first week.

On the second week as a merchandiser, I started experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. I had a sore throat, dry cough, sore chest, shortness of breath, and a low grade fever. In addition, the customers at the stores where I worked were not complying with masking or social distancing rules for the most part; only about 20% were wearing masks in the store. Even though I was masked and gloved at all times, my doctor was concerned that I was putting myself at risk. I also have asthma (another adult-onset complication of Lupus), and with all that, my doctor felt that it was too risky for me to continue this work, at least not until I was well. I ran a fever for ten days, but after that was symptom-free. My doctor had told me I was probably well if I went for three days with no symptoms, and after I had,I resigned from my merchandising job and started delivering food for DoorDash.

I have heard some of my fellow drivers call this "the biggest gold rush ever" for delivery drivers. It is true - it's very easy to make $20 an hour or more delivering food right now. Our restaurants are still closed to dining room customers (although that is set to change this week). so many people are ordering takeout. I have been doing this for about three weeks now, working about 15 hours a week, and I have never done less than six deliveries in three hours averaging $18 an hour. It's not very hard, either, especially initially when there was still very light traffic. Traffic picked up significantly when Arizona lifted some of the stay-at-home restrictions last week, but it's still not bad. All I have to do is wear my mask and gloves and respond to order requests from the Dasher app on my phone, and I'm set. I rarely even see the customers, because they all want "contactless" delivery. So I leave the order on the porch, knock on the door, and go. It's really very pleasant, because I only drive from 4:30 to 7:30 when it is light outside (it's very hard to find addresses in the dark here, because we have low street lighting to preserve our night sky). This is a beautiful time of day, when the sun is setting, and it's gorgeous here anyway. I really enjoy driving through the different neighborhoods and seeing how beautiful it all is. And my work is directly tied to my efforts. The more hours I put in, the more I make, and I get to choose when I drive. So it's easy to feel like I'm impacting my results.

However, I have to question the definition of "essential." I know that caring for seniors who live at home alone or who are alone during the day is important. I think it is a more important job than stocking books and magazines, although I do think those brave souls who restock grocery store food and beverages are heroes. But delivering takeout meals? I question whether that is really "essential" or not. I mean, customers can usually go and get the meals themselves. They just don't want to. I realize we are helping the local economy by helping restaurants reach their customers, and I feel good about that. But essential? I'm not sure. However, I have seen other so-called essential businesses remain open here - auto parts sales, vacuum cleaner servicing, for example - that are questionable at best. I'm glad I'm "essential," since it has allowed me to move more freely during the quarantine (although I did get sick, and since my doctor did not refer me for testing, I still don't know if it was from COVID). But I wouldn't include delivery drivers in the same category as ER nurses and doctors. They're the ones who are really making a difference.

I'm not sure what my work life will look like as conditions return to "normal." I don't know how long that will take, or if people will continue to order food at the same level as they are currently. I'd love to return to teaching, since that is where I feel like I can have the most impact. In the meantime, though, I'll just keep serving my customers and enjoying the drive.

#COVID #EssentialWorkers #SeniorHelpers #Doordash #Merchandising

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