Purple Threads: Students with essential jobs power through pandemic

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Brooke Hogan, senior in agronomy, pours milk into an iced coffee at Radina's Coffeehouse and Roastery. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Hogan)

Editor’s note: This story is part of the Purple Threads series, which aims to tell the stories of Kansas State students who, despite their different experiences, are all connected in some way through K-State.

COVID-19 brought upon a new normal for millions of students across the country: online schooling, the cancellation of musicals and games and for some, the loss of their graduation.

It also changed the way many food service, retail and medical workers go about their day-to-day lives. Their hands are incredibly dry from washing them hundreds of times a shift. They feel more pressure from the loss of staff. And a new kind of fear is lurking in their minds.

“I am terrified,” Riley Griffin, senior in English, said. “Not for myself, though. I am afraid of passing it on. There are so many of my coworkers and customers that if I were to spread it, they might not make it. I can’t go see my family, because my mom is immunosuppressed and this virus would kill her. I can’t risk that.”

Griffin is an employee at Walmart. She said the fear never goes away.

“I wash my hands and sanitize at work,” Griffin said. “I shower and sanitize everything after work. I don’t go out. I take vitamins. I do everything possible to minimize the risk, but the fear is still there.”

Griffin responds to a multitude of duties at her job like cashiering and working at the service desk, among others. She said a number of changes have been implemented since the beginning of the pandemic.

“…Item limits on paper goods and cleaning supplies, limiting the number of customers — 1083,” Griffin said. “Putting up signage reminding people to be socially distant, sanitizing carts before they are brought back inside the store, providing sanitization equipment for customers, sneeze shields in front of registers — inefficient and too small to actually help because people don’t stand in front of that if they are getting their bags.”

Griffin said the store is now screening employees for symptoms prior to them clocking in. Starting April 20, they have to wear masks.

Griffin said a lot of the difficulty at work comes from miscommunication.

Riley Griffin, senior in English, sits in her Walmart uniform. (Photo courtesy of Riley Griffin)
Riley Griffin, senior in English, sits in her Walmart uniform. (Photo courtesy of Riley Griffin)

“Floor associates aren’t being made aware of new item restrictions and policies in proper timing,” Griffin said. “For instance, I didn’t know we had to get screened until I was barred from entering. I had to walk around the store to Automotive and get questioned before I could clock in for the day.”

She also mentioned some difficulties that arise from interactions with customers.

“The whiplashing policy changes, fear and anxiety caused a lot of people to become angry,” Griffin said. “I had one lady tell me to shove an extra case of water ‘up my ass’ because we had a limit of one per customer. Arguments over the limitations have decreased, but many people are still complaining, not following proper hygiene or social distancing.”

Griffin said she’s had people cough in their hands before trying to hand her something or cough without covering at all. Some lick their fingers prior to giving her cash. She said she uses sanitizer between each customer and tries to wipe down her belt or the self-checkout counters after each use.

There’s been a shift in the attitude of customers, Griffin said.

“Now they all fall on a spectrum. Not worried and dismissive — most of these ignore social distancing — to coming in covered head to toe in PPE,” she said. “People are either rude or too nice. I have gotten more thank you’s recently, but at this point they feel empty, forced. Mostly people either want to hurry up and go home or they ache for human interaction.”

But retail is not the only area of business experiencing change.

Brooke Hogan, senior in agronomy and a general manager of Radina’s Coffeehouse and Roastery, said that while employees are not required to wear masks, they have the option to do so if they want. However, Radina’s has been taking precautions to protect their employees and customers.

“We have hand sanitizer at both of our registers and whenever someone walks to or away from the register they use it,” Hogan said. “Since we don’t have one person designated to be on the register, we go through a lot of hand sanitizer because we’re just walking to and away from the register a whole lot, touching people’s debit cards and cash and stuff like that.”

Hogan said disinfectants are being used more, and they are also changing their sanitizer buckets more often.

Like Griffin, Hogan said she’s also noticed a change in customers.

“I’m really self conscious of how I put lids on cups, because you can’t put a lid on the cup without touching the lid,” Hogan said. “There are people that will give you a look when they watch you put the lid on.”

But Hogan said she’s noticed a lot of customers with a kinder attitude as well.

“Our point of sale that most coffee shops around here uses is through Square, and there’s an option for customers to leave feedback — if they get the receipts texted or emailed to them, there’s a link where you can click to leave feedback, that only the business can see,” Hogan said. “And there are a lot of people saying, ‘We really appreciate you still being open during these hard times.'”

She said tips are getting better during this time as well.

Hogan said that when the pandemic began, she gave her employees the option to be taken off the schedule if they wanted to return home or didn’t feel comfortable coming to work.

Abena Taylor, graduate student in business administration, is an employee at Radina’s who chose to stay.

“There’s something that I’m personally saving up for,” Taylor said. “And it didn’t really bother me to continue working, because I know that if it wasn’t me it’d be someone else.”

However, Taylor said she is still nervous about getting sick.

“I’m kind of germaphobic — even before this whole thing,” Taylor said. “So, I’m pretty much doing a lot of things that I was doing before. But I am a little bit worried because some people are asymptomatic so you don’t know if they have it. And then you might go where they’ve gone, and then catch it that way, and so that makes me a little bit nervous.”

Some students have jobs that require them to be closer to harder-hit areas. Alexandria Bontrager, senior in microbiology, works as a CNA in home health. She works for two companies: Angels at Home Care and Interim Healthcare, the latter of which she said she works at most.

Recently, she’s been traveling to Topeka a few days a week to help with health care support.

Alexandria Bontrager, senior in microbiology, smiles with her stethoscope. (Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Klahr)
Alexandria Bontrager, senior in microbiology, smiles with her stethoscope. (Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Klahr)

“I see a lot of people, and so … it’s kind of scary,” Bontrager said. “Thinking that there’s like a lot of cases going on and — number one, I’m traveling to a lot of different places, and so I could be carrying something that I don’t know about. But also, when I’m working in Topeka, usually I see like at least ten people in any given shift, so it’s a lot of pressure.”

Bontrager said her job is taking some additional precautions due to the pandemic.

“I say some, but we’re doing quite a bit of precautions … before every shift,” Bontrager said. “We have to send in our temperature. Everybody’s wearing a mask all the time now, which is good. We should have been doing that way before. So that’s kind of new.”

Bontrager said she feels like her job is slightly shifting from being a CNA to answering questions about the situation.

“People want information from me, and they’re like ‘OK you are the health care provider that I’m coming into contact with because my physical is canceled and all of this is canceled so like what do you think about the virus? What’s going on, am I going to be OK?'” Bontrager said. “But also people are paranoid so they don’t want me to come into their house.”

As far as fear goes, Bontrager said she doesn’t have any preexisting conditions that might make her more susceptible to the virus, but she is concerned that the stress she’s experiencing from school and work might hurt her immune system.

“Now I’m working like 35 to 45 hours a week in nursing and also trying to finish pre-med — I graduate in a month, so I’m like, ‘OK, how am I supposed to study the same amount that I was before, and manage both of these expectations?'” she said. “So I’m not sleeping as much as I should be — I also have a puppy, so he doesn’t sleep either.”

Bontrager, Hogan, Taylor and Griffin are all students who are trying to acclimate to entirely new territories in multiple aspects of their lives — school and work.

Griffin said she finds that all she wants to do after work is shower and sleep.

“Being either a student or an essential worker during a pandemic is rough,” Griffin said. “No doubt. I have had trouble being in class because I have been either held up at work, or so exhausted that I haven’t had the energy to even get on Zoom and try. My classwork has suffered. I haven’t been able to focus.”

Taylor also said keeping up with school has become difficult given the new mode in which lectures are being administered.

“I find myself not really wanting to watch the videos,” Taylor said. “Even though if I were to go to class, I would be more than happy to just go to class. So that’s actually really hard for me.”

Hogan said she’s taking 12 credit hours, but she is only attending one class because of the way things have shaken out this semester — some classes were only a few weeks long, and one was from studying abroad over spring break.

Hogan said she is nervous about the job she currently has lined up for after graduation.

“I keep on hearing about other people having their internships canceled or things like that ,but I have like a job lined up and I don’t think they would fire me,” Hogan said. “I think that if coronavirus affects my job after I graduate, it would be that it pushes back my start date or something like that because they’ll probably suggest that after I move and get settled in Oregon, maybe they’ll want me to self-quarantine or self-isolate for two weeks.”

Griffin said her teachers have been great so far, but she’s struggling.

“I was doing so good balancing work and school, but the emotional stress of the pandemic has caused my scheduling to go haywire,” Griffin said. “I have had anxiety attacks in my car after work. I have so much I need to catch up on that it is crushing me.”

Bontrager, who is also the president of the Peer Advocates for Mental Wellness and Success, said mental health is important to consider during this time.

“It’s really important to take care of yourself psychologically as well,” Bontrager said. “I would say I could be doing a better job right now. I’m really, really good at suppressing so right now I’m in suppression mode — I’m like ‘I have a job to do.’ … I’m sure my cortisol levels would say otherwise, but I feel OK at this point in time.”

Hogan said that the situation is a double-edged sword. She said while people might be wondering why businesses are still open, there is still money to be made.

Radina’s has had to let go of a lot of bakers, Hogan said.

“Radina’s as a business is really struggling, and we’re probably making more money than a lot of the other smaller coffee shops that don’t have drive-thrus right now,” Hogan said. “So businesses really appreciate every single customer that comes through.”

Griffin said the situation is continuing to get more difficult.

“I try to be happy and kind at work,” she said. “To put on a smiling mask so that the customers can have a little bit of normal. But it’s getting harder every day.”

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Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat. I'm the copy chief and deputy managing editor of the Collegian. In the past, I've served as an editor on the news and culture desks and worked closely with the multimedia staff. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.