Essential workers reflect on struggles and triumphs of 2020
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If there ever were an image of what it means to be a "front-line worker" this year, those at Occupy Medical — a free clinic in Lane County serving the uninsured and unhoused — would be it.
They've operated for months at full-speed, clocking 16-hour shifts to provide care to those with the least access. Some even have been known to clock out, only to turn around and volunteer more time supporting the organization in other ways. Sue Sierralupe, clinic director of Occupy Medical said the conditions have exposed a depth of passion and human spirit.
"In health care, we get a special window to that, and it's what keeps us going," she said.
The work is hard — on the body and morale. And in the pandemic, you never really clock out.
"You put your heart out for the people that you work with," she said. "Closing the door on that at the end of the day — I don't know how to do that. I've been told you should. I don't know how to."
Health care workers like those at Occupy Medical were highlighted for their dedication and sacrifice early on in the pandemic. They were hailed as heroes.
But they're not the only ones who have stepped into the spotlight this year. The pandemic impacted aspects of daily life people took for granted and revealed little-known details about what it's like to be a teacher, a mail carrier or a grocery store worker.
"Our jobs have always been the same, and I think we've always been heroes and nobody's recognized it," said Reisa Maddex, an administrative assistant at Capella Market in Eugene. "I would say that about health care workers, and about teachers and anybody in the service industry."
Essential work never stops
For some people, such as teachers, the job has changed significantly. Other jobs have hardly changed at all.
What's changed is how people see them.
"I don't think people understood we were essential before the pandemic," Maddex said. "Then, with restaurants closing and access to other forms of food becoming far more limited, people have a clearer understanding that grocery (worker) is, in fact, an essential position."
The most difficult part of the job since March has been dealing with conflicting perspectives on the rules, she said. More cautious customers concerned for their health understand and comply with the rules, while those convinced the virus is a hoax think the rules violate their personal freedom and don't comply.
"Having those two groups of people in the walls of a grocery store — and it's a fairly small grocery store — creates a pressure cooker," she said.
This heated resistance to public health guidance Maddex sees is widespread — it goes beyond the walls of grocery stores and impacts the very people charged with keeping the public healthy. Sierralupe said the level of resistance she's met is beyond anything she expected.
"The ratio of people that are ... telling (health care workers) they are liars, telling them they are conspiracy theorists, telling them they are trying to harm people, is far greater than I anticipated," Sierralupe said. "I'm still not sure if I can really wrap my head around that. I don't really have to because my hours are so long and I have so much going on that I don't really have time to think about it."
This barrage of frustration, fueled by misinformation, puts many essential workers in the line of fire — emotionally and physically. PeaceHealth has had to roll out new processes this year to add layers of protective protocols for themselves and other patients, said Dr. Jim McGovern, vice president of medical affairs and COVID-19 Incident Commander. The hospital has had to adjust protocols for entering the building, find new ways to help patients from afar such as video visits and create drive-up flu shot clinics in an effort to keep patients safe.
Health care workers aren't alone in working longer hours. U.S. Postal Service workers have had three times the package volume this year over previous years, said Misty Atkinson, supervisor of the Eugene Post Office.
"The packages are getting bigger, and it's taken a lot more for us to get all the packages in the mail and everything delivered to the customers in appropriate time," she said.
Carriers start shifts earlier and end later, she said, as people living in lockdown look to them to deliver medications, care packages and letters to stay connected. Postal workers who would normally work an eight-hour day have been stretched to 14- or 16-hour days. It's the amount of work they expect for any normal Christmas season, but it's been that way since April.
"We have been going nonstop, constantly," Atkinson said. "It has just been extremely hard this year."
Kristin Woodford, who teaches music at Yolanda Elementary School in Springfield, said this year has been unlike any other in her 15-year career. She has had to rewrite lesson plans to keep students interested from afar, unable to build relationships with them the same way.
Springfield schools still are doing distance learning, so Woodford records all of her lessons and posts them online. The lack of live interaction with students is frustrating, she said, as teachers come back year after year because they love connecting with them.
The pandemic has taken a lot of that away for Woodford.
"It has really made me realize what I actually like about teaching, which is that student connection and helping the kids, even beyond music," she said. "I miss that connection."
Despite the stress of the pandemic, changes have led to newfound appreciation, some workers said.
Woodford noticed that the conversation about what an elementary teacher does has changed. It's been refreshing, she said, seeing the stereotype of music being a "filler class" waning after parents watched her lessons, which focus on counting and rhythm, basic composition and teaching students to find their voice.
"We work really hard," she said, noting the false stereotype that teachers "play with kids all day" and teaching doesn't require work outside the school day.
"We go to bed thinking about kids that maybe were struggling today in our class or have been struggling for a while, or kids that we know are homeless," Woodford said. "There's always a kid on our mind ... it's never really a job that settles down, that takes a break."
Over the past several months, Sierralupe and her clinic have been the recipient of gifts of gratitude. Local restaurant Screamin' Jay's Hot Lunch delivered about 30 meals a week to the clinic for the past month. The restaurant has given away hundreds of meals since the pandemic began, particularly to essential workers such as firefighters and health care workers.
"I think it's really awesome that we had ... a pause in time, to think about the systems that we rely on, and the importance that we placed on people's jobs," Fiona Gledhill, the eatery's co-owner, said. "I still see really abhorrent behavior at the grocery store and other places and it shocked me, but it's definitely given me a deeper appreciation."
Occupy Medical has seen different kinds of support from the community as the pandemic wages on, all of which is needed, Sierralupe said.
"I love the signs, the cards, the donations, people bringing in handmade masks. They bring me to tears," Sierralupe said. "My staff needs it, they love it, it makes their day, but we need bigger action as well."
Gratitude going forward
Workers will be in these positions a while longer — and people in the community need to maintain their own stamina to see them through it.
"We mourn every life that has been lost," McGovern with PeaceHealth said. "We thank everyone for wearing a mask in our facilities and extend a special thank you to our front-line providers and caregivers, who suit up each day and, with all their skill and compassion, try to heal the sickest among us."
They can't do it alone, he said, and the best way people can help is to continue to work to stop the spread: wear a mask, wash hands and stay 6 feet away from people outside your household.
While these steps are necessary, they're just a small piece of larger community health needs such as housing and health care for all, Sierralupe said.
"That's the gratitude I would like to see from the country," she said.
On an individual level, showing gratitude to these essential workers can be simple.
"If you think that we're heroes, treat us that way," Maddex said. "Behave like you're a guest in my home when you come into my store. Be polite. Be patient. That makes my job easier."
Front-line workers are tired, Atkinson said, so the best thing people can do is just react with kindness.
"Just be nice and polite and say hi to them or something," she said. "We're putting in long days and we're trying to get the mail delivered to you, and we want to. We're trying to do the best we can."
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