Shonda Garrison is a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. She’s been doing that job for fifteen years. Throughout the pandemic, she’s been heading out on her route every day, getting deliveries to Kansas Citians’ doorsteps no matter what obstacles come her way.
It’s the unofficial post office motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Garrison takes pride in being labeled essential.
“It’s one of those jobs that when you gotta work, you gotta work. It makes me feel good,” she says. “When this whole pandemic started, I was like, ‘This is the job I chose. This is what I signed up for.'”
The people on Garrison’s mail route have shown her lots of appreciation for keeping deliveries coming while they’ve been at home. She also gets compensated like someone doing an essential job.
“Being a mail carrier, I get paid pretty well, and I have good benefits. I’m essential. A lot of other people who are essential don’t have it as good as me,” she says. “It’s so weird where we put our money as a society.”
As more and more workers get called back to their physical workspaces, the risks they’re taking aren’t being recognized or compensated. And their voices aren’t being heard in debates over when and how to reopen.
Here’s some of what we miss when we tune them out.
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In early July, Elizabeth Schurman started reading impassioned arguments for reopening schools making the rounds on social media. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the American Association of Pediatrics all joined in a choir of absolute certainty: Children. Must. Go back to school.
Schurman, a former public school teacher, is now a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, and she noticed something startling in the coverage.
“They were just not even mentioning that teachers were part of this, that maybe we should consider how this affects teachers,” she says. “Their 100% focus was on students, students, students. Many times, as a teacher, I felt like I didn’t count, like I wasn’t a real person somehow. But suddenly this was coming at me in a really direct way.”
Schurman spent seven years teaching high school for Kansas City Public Schools followed by three years in New York City public schools. So she’s felt compelled to speak up from the sidelines, not just for the safety of teachers but for their expertise.
“The doctors, health professionals, public health leaders, they’re talking about how kids are going to wash their hands every hour. I mean, I’ve only subbed in elementary school, but taking your class to wash their hands or to go to the bathroom is one of the most complicated, challenging things you can do during the day,” Schurman says.
Maintaining an orderly classroom while following social distancing recommendations is a hard thing for Schurman to imagine, even at the high school level.
“Most of my discipline really was the fact that I was constantly walking around the room, you know, looking at what people were doing and listening to what they’re saying. And they knew that I was involved and paying attention. So for me to stand up at the front of the room and just say, ‘Do this’ — I mean, I don’t think that would have gotten me very far at all.”
Schurman helped spearhead a teacher-led movement called Kansans For A Safe Return To School. They’ve staged demonstrations in Topeka, Lawrence and Olathe. The group’s demands include adequate resources to comply with all Centers For Disease Control recommendations along with a 14-day stretch with no new cases before returning to classrooms.
Shurman recognizes the urgency and desperation parents feel to get kids back in school and she knows it’s valid. Parents have to work. Children aren’t interacting with their peers. An entire support structure is missing, one that touched people’s lives in more ways than many of them ever realized before. If anyone knows how important a teacher’s contribution to society really is, it’s a teacher.
“That doesn’t mean teachers should be expected to jump in and risk their lives,” she says.
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A barista named Emily, who has asked to go by first name only to protect her job, works at a coffee shop in Johnson County. Although she says her employer has taken a lot of precautions, some of the safety recommendations aren’t being enforced by management. And that’s because, from a barista’s point of view, they’re not realistic.
“Most coffee shops, including our shop, are advertising to customers that their baristas are using gloves, but nobody at my shop and nobody at any other local shop that I know of has the ability to use gloves,” she says. “They melt. They’re temperature sensitive.”
Baristas wear masks, but throughout the day, they periodically do something called “dialing in” the espresso. That means they’re making sure that the grind is set to the right size for a perfect shot. “You have to smell it,” Emily explains. “You have to take your mask off.”
And social distancing behind the bar just isn’t possible. “If you have two people steaming drinks at the same time, they’re within a four-foot span. And then the register is usually, what, two, three feet from that?”
When it comes to customers following the rules, the credo of customer service makes enforcement hard for a barista.
“You’re kind of expected to follow ‘the customer’s always right.’ So if a customer is not wanting to wear a mask, obviously it’s required, but it’s not something that we really have that much, at least that I’ve heard, that much support to be like, ‘Okay, if you don’t want to wear a mask, then you can just leave.'”
The mask requirement doesn’t apply to customers at their tables.
“Many of them are parking for three to five hours.”
Emily sees herself as a frontline worker, which is not something she expected to be as a barista. She has no health insurance. She works mostly for tips and questions whether her work is essential in a way that justifies the risk.
“Part of our humanity is, you need to feel like things are normal. One of those small joys is coffee, but it’s not really an essential business,” she says. “Grocery stores have coffee that you can buy and brew at home.”
“Is there a point in which I am not able to feel safe enough?” she asks. “Like is the money worth it basically. And because we have to pay bills, it’s kind of a situation of, it has to be worth it. You know?”
But when it comes to questions about what’s safe and what’s not, the workers themselves aren’t being asked. And that makes everyone’s information incomplete.
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