Maurice Wiggins works at a Kroger distribution facility in Memphis. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Essential workers. They are medical and public safety employees, but also the people key to keeping their places of employment open so the public can have food and other, well, essentials. 

They toil, often for low wages, in grocery stores, warehouses, restaurants and transportation services, braving possible exposure to COVID-19 since the pandemic began a year ago — or risk unemployment. 

Race and class disparities are only heightened by the virus. Black and Hispanic people are more likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus than white people. And while some workers are able to isolate in home offices, many essential workers must report in-person daily to keep society functioning. 

Essential workers are disproportionately Black and Hispanic as well, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. In Shelby County, Black and Hispanic people also are disproportionately poor, with poverty rates of about 23% and 25%, respectively – more than triple the 7% poverty rate for white people.

So it has been disheartening to learn that many essential workers may be among the last to get the life-saving vaccine against the virus, some workers said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent recommendations on vaccination priority groups suggest that after health care workers and long-term care facility residents, people over 75 and frontline essential workers should be vaccinated next. Both groups are at high risk for contracting COVID-19, it reasoned; older people are likelier to be hospitalized or die from the disease and essential workers cannot work from home, often coming into contact with dozens or potentially hundreds of people a day.

Tennessee’s vaccination plan – like many other state plans – doesn’t follow the CDC recommendations. As of March 5, more than 35 states hadn’t prioritized grocery workers and meatpackers, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. In Tennessee, some essential workers, who also include groups of people like warehouse employees and food service workers, may not be vaccinated for weeks. 

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism asked three essential workers in Shelby County what it’s been like working during a pandemic and without knowing when they’d be vaccinated. One worker – server and bartender Lindsey Smith – has been vaccinated since giving this interview, by getting a dose that would have otherwise gone unused.

Luke Bradstreet, 28

Kroger cashier and union steward at UFCW Local 1529; pay, $10.75 an hour

I kind of had this feeling early on that as soon as the mask mandate started, I knew that there would be really no enforcement of it. Because you would think, oh, there’s gonna be like a security guard outside enforcing, there’s going to be a manager enforcing it. But what they really do is they put these 16-year-old cart pushers on the door and tell them to enforce it. And all that happens is they get yelled at, that person says no, comes in without a mask anyway, coughs all over everybody.

“I’d say there were points in time where I kind of wanted to stop. But I just got my health insurance there, so if I stop now it’s not really beneficial for me in the long run.”

Luke Bradstreet

People will come in and they’ll have their mask hanging under their nose and they’ll say, “Oh this whole thing is just 5G. They’re trying to give us all autism,” or something crazy like that; like I hear that every day. And to see people come in, who are sort of indirectly responsible for my health, say, “Oh well, actually, I have the freedom not to do this, and the Constitution blah blah blah.” And then just coughing all over me without even thinking about it. It’s emotionally frustrating, but really the big thing is I’ve got co-workers who are 60, 65, 70 who are at high risk; they’re cancer survivors that have high blood pressure, and they’re all cashiers, they all come face to face with customers every day. 

That was basically how it was early on. Just sort of a lingering kind of paranoia. It wasn’t really a feeling of, am I going to catch it? It’s, when am I gonna catch it? And who am I gonna catch it from? And unfortunately, you know ’cause we have a lot of older customers, who might I accidentally give it to?

I’d say there were points in time where I kind of wanted to stop. But I just got my health insurance there, so if I stop now it’s not really beneficial for me in the long run. 

I mean, maybe this is like calling my shot a little too quick, but I honestly think if I caught COVID I would be fine. But do I think I will get through this without ever catching COVID? No. Absolutely not. I will almost certainly catch it by the time this is over, especially with us being so far down the vaccination list. 

During the first few weeks of the pandemic we just kept hearing that phrase over and over again: “Essential. Essential worker. You’re essential.” And now we’re being told that even though we come into contact with probably, I would say, hundreds of people a day, especially if you work a full eight-hour shift, that we’re not essential enough to be vaccinated at an earlier time frame. I remember people saying we’re essential, but it feels more like we’re sacrifices.

Everyone just wants this to be over and being vaccinated means that we’re one step closer to that. And you can see the light at the end of the tunnel with vaccination.

Lindsey Smith, 31

Server and bartender at The Gray Canary; pay $300-600 a week

Bartender Lindsey Smith poses for a portrait near her workplace in downtown Memphis. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

“It’s just such a strange circumstance to feel kind of just insecure all the time about work in general.”

Lindsey Smith

People just assume that (restaurant work is) an unskilled job and that it’s not a career, but for a lot of people, that is their job, and that’s what they’re good at; that’s how they make their money. It’s not just some transient thing; (it) is not some phase that they’re in. Definitely, through all this, I’ve thought it would be really nice to just be able to work at home and have a stable income, but without a degree or without a lot of options – it’s really hard to find a job right now, obviously. So, yeah. I’ve thought about it. But I mean, I’m good at my job and I enjoy working in restaurants. I enjoy working with people.

There’s always a question of, like, am I going to get COVID today? I’m gonna be in contact with a lot of people. It’s possible that I could be exposed and I, personally, since the pandemic started, have not eaten inside a restaurant, not once, because I’m already exposed to a lot of people. I feel like it’s my part to do, even though I have to work and my income depends on obviously people going out to eat. I’m grateful that they still are, I guess. It’s like a weird, weird place with that. It’s just such a strange circumstance to feel kind of just insecure all the time about work in general.

Prior to the pandemic, I’ll just kind of give you an idea, I would probably make, like, close to $800 a week. I usually would work like four or five days. And then post-pandemic, it’s so inconsistent. It could be anywhere between $300 to $600, a week, I would say. Sometimes more, sometimes less. There’s just no way of knowing. 

I feel very privileged in comparison to a lot of people because I still do well at my job. Whereas a lot of places that have limited capacity for seating they don’t do as well, or they’ve closed. So I feel very privileged in that.

I think it’s ridiculous that they have not prioritized restaurant workers when we’ve been dealing with people this entire time. Like that’s just crazy to me. Obviously, I agree with the way that they’re doing waves of people but we’re not even listed. It’s not even a category. It’s just basically going to be your age group. So, that seems a little absurd to me that we’re deemed essential to the economy, but yet we shouldn’t get the vaccine? Like, what? That doesn’t make any sense.

Maurice Wiggins, 31

Forklift driver and Teamsters Local 667 union steward at Kroger Memphis Distribution Center; pay $21 an hour 

Maurice Wiggins works at a Kroger distribution facility in Memphis. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

I’m a lift driver, a forklift driver. It gets the bills paid. We work 80 hours a week still, to this day. That’s on average. Eighty a week. 

At times, when (the coronavirus) first hit, I didn’t feel safe at all. But then the company and the union get to work together and we get to bringing in safety precautions and they bring in extra people to clean and everything, so you get to feeling more safe. And then after a while, the company gets more relaxed with it. And then some of the union workers and employees –  they think it’s a joke. Then the numbers spike back up. Around October, November, it spiked back up.

“I’m seeing, I’m hearing the stories of people dying. So it’s serious to me.”

Maurice Wiggins

It’s really a hazard. Every day, you’ve got to wipe down your equipment, you’ve got to be very cautious. Everything you touch, where you sit, who you eat lunch with, who you’re around. ’Cause you never know. 

I wear a mask every day, all day at work. The company says it’s mandatory but ain’t no disciplinary action behind it, so it can’t be mandatory. I mean they got masks available but you know most guys don’t, supervisors don’t. 

See my wife, she’s a medic in the Air Force (living in California, along with his children), so she deals with people (with COVID-19) every day. People die in her arms every day. So I’m hearing her story and I’m coming to work. I’m like very serious out here. But these people ain’t.

We had one death here due to COVID. We had over a hundred positive; we had guys that’ve been out for a long period of time due to complications of it; it kept messing with them. So I mean it’s serious. I’m seeing, I’m hearing the stories of people dying. So it’s serious to me. 

While I’m here in Memphis I stay with my mom and I just try to keep her safe. She’s a diabetic. She’s just trying to tell me to be safe, to be careful. ’Cause she understands I got to do it. But she tells me to stay safe, keep my mask on, keep my hands washed, sanitize and try to keep six feet. We took multiple tests and never came up positive, so we’ll try to continue doing what we’ve been doing. Try to stay safe.

I don’t want to jump nobody, I don’t want to say we’re more important than others, but I mean certain warehouses and certain jobs – I mean we’ve gotta work or things don’t go right. Like we’ve gotta get this food out. And if we don’t – I mean people won’t eat. We’ve gotta feed the Mid-South. That’s our slogan. We feed the Mid-South. So if we don’t come to work, food’s not on the table. 

I’m getting (the vaccine) as soon as I can. We gotta do whatever these scientists (say) and whatever we gotta do. I mean do what we do to stay healthy, take care of my family and see my family and raise my kids. I’m gonna do what I’ve gotta do. I can’t be out here getting sick.

Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at hannah.grabenstein@mlk50.com


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