As Lockdowns Ease, The Pandemic's Toll On Frontline Workers Becomes Clear

May 7, 2020

Sara Fearrington is a Waffle House worker and married to a husband with a chronic lung condition. She advocates for higher pay and better health benefits for frontline workers.
Credit Sara Fearrington / Contributed

In order to make it to her first shift at Waffle House, Sara Fearrington gets up at 5 a.m. to be out the door on time to catch the first bus into the downtown Durham terminal. She then transfers to the No. 12 line out to the restaurant on Highway 55, which usually gets her there at about 6:45 a.m. – enough time to get ready and clock in by 7 a.m.

Fearrington, 45, doesn't have health insurance. Waffle House does offer package options, but on her wages of $3.10 per hour plus tips, she can't afford it. She's been in the restaurant industry since she was 17 years old. Her 45-year-old husband has a chronic lung condition that makes him high risk if he were to contract COVID-19.

"It's scary, it's really scary," Fearrington says. "Even before Corona, there was always that fear of coming in contact with people, and being on the receiving end."

Out of fear of catching the coronavirus and transmitting it to her husband of 28 years, Fearrington cut back her shifts and then stopped working entirely. Of course, that means her family is now facing bills without enough cash reserves to pay them all. Her paycheck supports three kids at home, her husband, and sometimes her adult daughter and grandchildren.

She has received her federal stimulus money, but that immediately went to paying bills. She wants to work, but also wants to be sure she doesn't bring the coronavirus – or any virus for that matter – into her home.

"You could be one of the statistics on a ventilator if you're not careful," she said. "Everybody is going through the same thing. Everybody is struggling. Everybody is afraid."

As America tentatively emerges from weeks of lockdowns, it is becoming clear that the pandemic has taken its toll on workers who have been on the front lines all along.

They have been preparing and serving food, packing and delivering supplies, caring for the sick and elderly, and keeping streets and buildings clean. They have also watched their co-workers fall ill. Thousands have gotten sick themselves. Many have died. Read more of their stories here.

The burden has been borne unevenly across gender, racial and socioeconomic lines, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data in the country's 100 largest cities. They are mostly women, people of color, and more likely to be immigrants.

Workers deemed "essential" are also more likely to live below the federal poverty line or hover just above it. They are more likely to have children at home, and many live with others who also have front-line jobs.

"What is important about this pandemic is that it has shined a spotlight on workers who have always been essential but before this were invisible," said David Michaels, professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

In the following graphic, choose a city from the dropdown menu to see the makeup of frontline workers in the nation's 100 largest cities.

Although there might be a newfound spotlight on frontline workers, the workers themselves say they have been calling for better pay and benefits for years. Sheree Allen, 26, is a child care worker in Durham who was laid off due to the virus. But even when she worked, her employer didn't offer health insurance or any kind of paid leave if she fell ill.

"If I were still working and had gotten sick, I wouldn't have been able to go to the doctor. And I wouldn't be making money if I had to stay home without paid sick days," she said. "Now they're saying that childcare workers are 'essential' workers − that we keep the economy running. But for years they have told us that we are 'unskilled' and that we don't deserve $15 per hour. The truth is all our low-wage jobs are essential jobs. We have always been essential, and we deserve at least $15 per hour, benefits and union rights."