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Stories from the Front Lines

Coping with COVID-19, Part 3: Front Line Workers Share Stories of Service, Sacrifice

Millions of American workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic have no choice but to show up for work. They have a job to do and, although aware and wary of the risks, are determined to do it.

The Alexander Group and its sister firm Alex & Red have been reaching out to these essential employees to share their stories. They are Emergency Medical Technicians, restaurant owners and case workers. They are our neighbors, friends and family members. And we are grateful for their service.

Their stories remind us that, although working from home can be stressful and distracting, it is also a privilege. Here is part 3 of our ongoing series.

John, EMT Crew Chief, New Jersey

I am an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and crew chief. I joined the squad when my son Sam was eight and, a year later, became crew chief. I'm guessing that it's been 15 or so years.

Our response to the coronavirus is similar to the way we responded to the Ebola virus. We have to protect ourselves with a dramatic amount of what is called PPE, personal protective equipment. On an average call—without contagion in the area—we would normally walk into a scene wearing a set of gloves and the appropriate clothing (that also has some protective aspects), and that would be it. If we felt that we were walking into a flu-like situation, we would put on a mask as well.

Now when we walk into a given event—whether it's an MVA (motor vehicle accident), or an apartment or a supermarket environment—we always approach our patients wearing a mask and gloves. And if we learn that there are flu-like or cold-like symptoms, we put on a gown and goggles as well. We look like a hazmat team.

In addition to that—and this is unique to the COVID-19 situation—we have a directive from the state to encourage patients without a life threat, without a need for a higher medical intervention, not to go to the hospital, because the hospitals are full. That's new for us. We didn't even do that during the Ebola outbreak.

I think anybody who embraces this job embraces the notion that there's additional risk involved. Nobody goes charging out in the middle of the night to help somebody in medical difficulty without a willingness to take risks. You function with some degree of confidence that your training will guide you through it, but you never really know what you're walking in to. I'm in this to support my community. I did this because I wanted the skillset. And that doesn't change from circumstance to circumstance.

I realize that my participation in this means that [my wife] Janet is in it, too. If she suddenly got sick, I wouldn’t know whether it came from me and my work, or the way we walk our dogs, or a trip to the grocery store.

I'm 62 years old and generally not worried about my own health; I worry about others. My concern is with my patients and the safety of my crew. I am riding with three people tonight. One of them is a high schooler. The safety of the EMS crew is our first priority, and we take great measures to ensure that safety with protocols and training. I know how to gown up; I've had experience with that, but I have to be on my game so that I make sure that my crew remains uninfected. That's the main thing I worry about.

I have not personally been on a COVID-19 call, but I have to consider that I may have been exposed and never knew. Two and half weeks ago my wife Janet and I experienced cold symptoms, and she had a fever one night. If it was going to blossom into anything, it would have happened already. With respect to our own possible exposure to COVID-19, our state guidelines allow us to continue to ride unless we have a fever.

I think the aspect that's the most difficult for all of us on the front lines is weighing the possibility of exposing others. I don't feel like I can turn my back on the squad and my commitment to the community. And I'm not inclined to either. But, in the back of my mind, I realize that my participation in this means that Janet is in it, too. If she suddenly got sick, I wouldn’t know whether it came from me and my work, or the way we walk our dogs, or a trip to the grocery store.

You just do the best job you can, using the proper protections, and hope for the best. You just have to do what feels right and what works for your family. I'm lucky that Janet is in it with me and supporting me.

One final comment: This has become even more personal for all of us in the first-responder community as one of our own, a police officer, is fighting for his life as we speak due to COVID-19.

Duane, Fast Food Franchise Owner, Texas

As a franchise owner with a major quick-service restaurant chain, I make sure my store is properly staffed, properly trained and serving our customers with the most care possible. I come to the restaurant every day that we’re open, guiding my team to make the right decisions throughout the day, staying on top of those things that make us a step above everybody else. That’s what I push myself to do every day.

Since the onset of COVID-19, our corporation has been carefully following all CDC guidelines. Our utmost desire is to keep our community, customers and team safe. Food safety, sanitization and cleanliness are very top of mind, even when we’re not facing a health crisis. Now, it’s even more important.

We have been giving direction and guidance to our team every day. We train on glove usage; we wear masks constantly while inside the restaurant. We’ve gone to contactless food delivery so that no one accidentally bumps our hand. And anybody handling cash washes their hands and changes gloves after each transaction.

We also instituted a health screening. I stop every employee at the door and ask them questions about coughing, sneezing, fever. If they have any symptoms, I don’t let them in the door until they are symptom-free for 36 hours. We don’t let anyone in the restaurant who is not an employee, and I even screen my vendors and repairmen. These steps—these layers of protection—are in addition to extra hand-washing facilities, extra hand sanitizer stations, extra cleaning protocols.

On top of safety, I’ve also been doing what I can to keep my team encouraged. Those of us who are in this field are used to being in the public. We’re used to being busy. This is very different for us. We miss our customers; we miss that social interaction.

It’s not just my livelihood at stake; my employees need work, too.

We believe we play a special role in people’s lives. We need to be here for people, to maintain a sense of normalcy. A lot of households have parents balancing work and home schooling. They’re probably getting tired of peanut butter and jelly at home, right? Our goal is to give customers a hot fresh meal that will help them relax. We try to be a beacon of light, writing messages on our bags of goodwill and encouragement. I put signs on the property that say “smile” and “choose joy” to brighten customers’ day and let them know there is someone who cares for them.

I have a team of 75 at my store. I’m doing my best to keep them working. It’s not just my livelihood at stake; my employees need work, too. Business is down 20 to 25 percent. We’re used to 7 percent growth year over year, so it’s like a 30 percent downswing in business. People are not out and about. Spring sports are not going on. It’s a struggle.

We’re finding new and unique ways to meet the customer where the need is. We added extra parking spots for mobile orders. We were working with DoorDash; we’ve added Uber Eats and Grubhub as well. We are adapting daily to give customers as many options as possible to enjoy our food.

Some people are afraid that quick service is not healthy, not clean. People shouldn’t be worried. It’s safe to eat out. Our customers keep us in business, and all of us in this industry are working hard to keep everyone healthy.

Jodie, Case Worker, Child and Elderly Abuse

I’ve been a case worker for a county and state agency that investigates reports of elderly and child abuse for 15 years. When calls come into our office, we determine whether the child or elderly person (we call them clients) is in imminent danger. If so, we attempt an in-person meeting within several hours. If the danger is not imminent, but impending—meaning the child is not in obvious or active danger—we have up to five business days to make contact. The same parameters apply to reports of elderly abuse except we have up to three business days to make contact as long as the client is not in imminent danger.

Some of our elder abuse cases are for people in nursing homes. Since the onset of COVID-19, we’re trying to have a staff member bring the client outside of the facility if possible. If that’s not possible and we have to enter the facility, we wear masks, gloves, hospital gowns, and shoe booties and preferably conduct the meeting in a separate room where there are no other residents or patients.

For child client cases, we are allowed to conduct interviews by videoconference if it is an ongoing case—one that requires monthly visits. For new cases, we still go to the home and conduct a face-to-face interview. It can get really scary to go out to clients' homes to assess their safety, particularly since a large portion of our clients are indigent. Sometimes we have to interview a family of six in a one-bedroom apartment. The toughest part is figuring out how to keep me, my family, my clients and their families safe—and still do my job well and not let fear get the best of me.

We’ve had to become creative with how we conduct these in-person meetings. We are calling ahead and asking if there’s anyone who is showing symptoms or recently been in high-exposure areas. Since the weather is getting nicer now, we’re able to occasionally conduct the interviews outside and have the parents go elsewhere so that we’re practicing social distancing. Case workers wear masks and gloves. Also, we have kits in our cars that includes wipes, antibacterial gel and trash bags, and we’ve been given detailed instructions on keeping ourselves safe: minimal layers of clothing, no jewelry, and no purses or bags in a home or facility.

The toughest part is figuring out how to keep me, my family, my clients and their families safe—and still do my job well and not let fear get the best of me.

I had one case where the child had all the symptoms of COVID-19, but had not been tested. (The child’s doctor said that the child did not have the virus “because of his age.”) I managed that investigation by conducting the majority of my communications with the family and child by phone and videoconference to limit my face-to-face contact as much as possible. Luckily, when I got to the home, the children were able to come out on the second-story balcony of their apartment. I positioned myself below them to introduce myself and assess their physical condition.

In her free time, Jodie breeds and shows Old English Sheepdogs (she has 13), a hobby she’s pursued for five years.

There is always a concern that a client is being threatened to hide signs of abuse. Now that we’re not conducting unannounced visits, this is probably happening more. When I conduct a videoconference with a client, I ask them to go into a private area or room and have them show me the space so that I know they’re alone. While I’m asking questions about the alleged abuse, I switch to phone mode so the client can speak to me privately, and no one can hear my questions. At the end of the interview, I connect with them again by videoconference so I can confirm they’re still alone. I’ve been doing this for so long that I get a sense of what’s going on, regardless of what the client tells me. I’ll wrap up with a videoconference with the parents or caregivers and then again with everyone together.

Why do I continue working? My husband and I have this conversation almost every day. I don’t have to work for financial reasons, but I know my job is important to the children and elderly folks we help to keep safe. That’s what keeps me going. If case workers were to panic and quit their jobs, there would be no one to protect these people other than concerned citizens and family members, and they call us.

This series will continue next week. Read Part 1 and 2 of our series here.

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