As this global pandemic roars on – and really, from the get go – we’ve had a chance to see what – and who – is essential for our communities. Most folks working in your neighborhood grocery store did not sign up to be on the frontlines of this crisis. Yet they are not only providing an essential service, they’re taking care of some of our most basic needs. They don’t feel like “heroes” – they see themselves as doing what needs to be done. These are bold, brave women.

Yolanda Suarez is an actress, producer and works in a grocery store in the Seattle area.  We chatted about her experience being on the frontlines during the pandemic, and how this work is impacting her life. Yolanda likes her work and colleagues but is there because she needs this job. Her co-workers are supporting one another, and she feels empowered and supported by her bosses – they’re providing good protection, breaks, and other support. However, she is relying on customers and the public to do the right thing – to respect the boundaries and practice safe behaviors – and that’s really scary. The company does not limit the number of people entering the store and does not require customers to wear masks and gloves. In Yolanda’s experience, the majority of customers do. And, the majority are respectful and appreciative. But it’s hard not to focus on – or fear – the customers that don’t. This job exponentially increases her exposure to many more people than those of us who can stay home (her co-workers, customers, other commuters, and all of their circles). She just assumes that anyone she comes into contact with is asymptomatic, and therefore that anyone she sees is potentially exposing her.

Yolanda lives in Seattle, but her grocery is in another city.  She does not have a car and commutes by bus. At first, the bus “was great” – empty, no traffic, and safe – like her own “private shuttle.” As soon as bus fare became free citywide, ridership increased, and it was crowded, there was less respect for physical boundaries and some frightening incidents. Also, she was often the only woman on the bus. Yolanda shared that she used her stimulus check to rent a car for the past month, which was a huge improvement.  As the month comes to an end this week, she is anxious knowing she’ll have to start commuting by bus again because she can’t afford to keep renting the car.

There’s a lot of fear and stress – fear of getting the virus, and of exposing others if she did; not seeing her family, and wondering when she will; having to commute by bus, and having to trust the behavior of others. The constant fear and stress is exhausting.  She doesn’t have much energy for anything else, including participating in her creative career despite lots of virtual opportunities. She feels sad and uncertain about when she will be able to see her elderly father. And regret that she didn’t go see her him earlier in the year when she could have.  Something so many of us living far from our families can relate to, though who could have known.  She feels with extensive testing (or when there’s a vaccine), she would feel safe visiting him, or better about why she can’t.

The pros are that she does like her job; her co-workers and supervisors are supportive of one another.  They feel like they are there for each other, and all in this together. Also, her relationship with her boyfriend has really strengthened, and their bond has deepened.  He works in a different grocery store, and they’ve been able to really share their experiences and support each other.  The stressors of this pandemic can really take a toll on our personal relationships, so this was really nice to hear. The cons are the mental health impact – a non-stop cycle of stress, fear, and exhaustion.  She has no energy left for conversations or for her creative work.  She’s really afraid of getting sick, and she wants to see her dad. (He is deaf, so alternate communication doesn’t work well). And she feels that a public, frontlines job exponentially increases the possibility of exposure. As exposures increase, risk increases, and then fear increases.  It’s very stressful.    

I asked Yolanda how she’s doing – she said she “wakes up with a sense of dread” that she has to go to work; but also feels that despite the stress, she’s “doing OK.” She feels she’s at the mercy of how customers and the public choose to approach the pandemic, fears the complacency of others, and wishes her company would/could required customers to wear masks and gloves. As a person on the frontlines, she is relying on and worrying about how others handle the rules. We all need to stay home to stay healthy and to protect others who are at greater risk. We owe it to Yolanda and all the BOLD, brave women working so hard for us in our grocery markets, to keep being careful and to keep following the rules and recommendations.  

Related Articles:

NY Times 4/18/2020: How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America.

National Women’s Law Center 3/30/2020: The Wage Gap Has Made Things Worse for Women on the Frontlines of COVID-19