Women at work, caught in chaos

When we think of essential front-line workers, we often think of the doctors. And nurses, too. Of course.

Published : 5 August 2020, 10:45 AM
Updated : 5 August 2020, 10:45 AM

But there are many more women in essential roles — some more visible, some less so — who are keeping the United States operational. They are vital as the country navigates through the chaos of the crisis.

Whether there is a vaccine or not — Dr Anthony Fauci is hopeful for 2021 — whether schools open for real or remain in some kind of hybrid purgatory, whether there is day care or not, whether offices open or not, goods still need to be trucked; meals still need to be prepared; food still needs to get delivered. Older people will continue to need care. And the funerals will keep coming.

A New York Times analysis this year of census data crossed with the federal government’s essential worker guidelines found that 1 in 3 jobs held by women is designated as essential. And more likely than not she is a woman of colour.

Here are a few of their stories. Some of these women have struggled to find protective equipment to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Others have come face to face with people who aren’t interested in masking up. Some find themselves grieving with families, soothing the elderly and supporting the sick. All of it is tiring, difficult work.

But despite the anguish and the challenges, many have seen glimpses of good in the form of a wave across a lobby, a smile, a “thank you,” a simple gesture of generosity. For the most part, these vital jobs are neither glamorous nor well-paid. But they are critical. And as the virus drags on, and the nation’s fatigue ticks up, perhaps they are more critical than ever.

— FRANCESCA DONNER, editor, In Her Words

She Witnessed the Pandemic’s Toll From Inside a Funeral Home

When news reports emerged about a novel coronavirus in China, 24-year-old Stephanie Garcia, a funeral director at International Funeral Service of New York in Brooklyn, didn’t know what to make of them. She felt scared and confused, unsure as to how such a distant and invisible threat might affect New York.

But then the virus arrived in the US, and New York City quickly became its epicenter.

“I never thought it would get this bad,” Garcia said, who was managing as many as 14 funerals in a week, compared with a four-per-week average before the pandemic.

Stephanie Garcia, as one of the last responders on the front lines, worked quietly and tirelessly in the background as the number of bodies piled up. The New York Times

The surge hit the death care industry especially hard, particularly in New York City where there have been over 23,000 deaths. Sandwiched between overflowing hospitals and backed up cemeteries, the city’s funeral homes were at maximum capacity at the peak of the crisis, and the cases kept pouring in.

Employees in the death care industry are the last responders on the front lines. Garcia and her colleagues were putting in 12-hour shifts — minimum. And yet there were days when Garcia drove to work and caught glimpses of life marching on as if a pandemic wasn’t tearing apart the city.

“I’m seeing all these people who are not taking it seriously,” Garcia said. “It’s crazy because, for me, I’m living in this nightmare right now.”

Garcia is a funeral director in an industry dominated by white men: According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the industry is nearly 80% male even though 70% of graduates from funeral director programmes in the US are female.

Garcia has been in the funeral business for about four years. As a director, she guides families through the process of taking care of someone who has died: retrieving the body; filling out paperwork; arranging memorials; organising cremations and burials. The job is as much about bringing dignity to the dead as it is caring for the living.

As the death toll in New York City mounted, there were hundreds of bodies — close to 200, Garcia estimates — in her funeral home’s care. Cemeteries and crematories in the area were booked weeks out, Garcia and her colleagues had to turn families away. But the phone kept ringing.

To meet the demand, her boss rented a refrigerated truck that hummed on the sidewalk beside the funeral home. Her colleagues were stressed and on the edge of burnout. Garcia wondered how they’d get through it.

“I’ve cried because of us rejecting families, because of not being able to take care of their loved ones,” she said.

When Garcia arrived home from work, she stripped naked at the door and headed directly for the shower.

Her self-care routine includes jigsaw puzzles, something that’s kept her sane while she tries to distract herself from the pain of her job.

“If you just see what I see,” Garcia said, “then you would want to be home.”


‘You Ever Just Feel Like Giving Up?’ Senior Year on the Front Lines

Growing up, Ashley Reynolds was accustomed to marking rites of passage in the shadow of her older brother’s ghost.

Her brother, Jeff Jr, named for their father, was shot at a house party when he was 18 and Reynolds was 3. On every birthday and holiday since, she has felt a sense of grief mingling with her joy, because she knows her parents wish that Jeff Jr could be there to celebrate too. (He would now be 33.)

But high school graduation was supposed to be her day. She would be the first of her mother’s children to cross that stage. She started counting down the days. Then the coronavirus came to Birmingham, Alabama.

“You ever just feel like giving up?” Reynolds, 18, said, in an interview in early May. “I feel like I’m letting my family down by not walking across the stage because my brother never got a chance to.”

Reynolds is one of the 3.7 million members of the class of COVID-19. Throughout the early months of the pandemic, she was also one of the country’s 24 million front-line workers. More than half of the essential workforce is female, and more than a third is African American, like Reynolds. While Reynolds’ senior year was upended, her daily shift as a fast food worker at McDonald’s, working 30 hours a week, remained.

When the stay-at-home order took effect in Alabama, she watched with disappointment as events were taken off her calendar. School turned to remote learning. Prom was up in the air. The course she was taking to become a certified nursing assistant was suspended.

But because she was deemed an essential worker, she could not quarantine, like most of her friends. She commuted daily for her shift at McDonald’s.

Illinois’s health director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, offers a glimpse into the round-the-clock, all-consuming effort of containing the coronavirus. The New York Times

The normal stresses of work — irritable customers, messy co-workers — were all amplified during the pandemic, she said. And many her customers refused to follow social-distancing guidelines. “They’re not understanding how serious this is,” she said. “Customers do not want to follow directions. They don’t believe in the 6-feet rules.”

Reynolds has closely followed the news on the spread of COVID-19 and its disproportionate effect on older people and Black people. Before her nursing course was canceled, she volunteered weekly at a local nursing home.

Now, in a happy twist, Reynolds began a new job, making $10.71 an hour as a nursing assistant at the same nursing home, providing comfort to the older people who cannot receive family visits because of COVID-19.

And another unexpected twist: She did get a graduation after all. As Alabama began to reopen in late May, her school held a ceremony, smaller than originally planned. “It wasn’t the best thing, but it was something,” she said.

Reynolds keeps her eyes trained on a post-pandemic future, hoping to start classes on campus at Talladega College in the fall. Still, she knows her mother is thinking anxiously about the day she’ll drop her off on campus. “You know how parents have that feeling of not wanting to let go?” she said. “That’s what my mom has.”


Why a Medical Interpreter Felt ‘Disposable’ Amid COVID-19

Helping very sick patients understand their prognosis has become routine for Marta Rodriguez, a hospital interpreter — but it hasn’t become any easier. She has a trick when she thinks she is about to cry: “I’ll dig my nails into my hand,” she said. “I’ll do something to stop the tears, because if I fall apart then I won’t do a good job.”

Rodriguez has worked in the role for more than 30 years, caring for 20 to 30 patients each week by interpreting what their doctors and nurses say.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown Rodriguez how urgently her work is needed. The death rate for Hispanic people because of the coronavirus is at least six times as high as the death rate among white Americans, for adults ages 45 to 54. And studies have shown that patients with limited English proficiency experience adverse health outcomes at rates markedly higher than English speakers, so they rely on interpreters like Rodriguez to help close that gap.

Rodriguez’s family moved from Costa Rica to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston when she was 10. Her father washed dishes at a restaurant, and her mother worked as a nanny. Rodriguez learned English the first summer she arrived in America, because a nun at her Catholic school, Sister Louise, told her to make sure she was fluent by the start of the school year.

Although her parents came to the U.S. seeking economic opportunities for their children, Rodriguez believes that if she had stayed in Costa Rica, she could have become a physician, which was initially her dream job. In America, a medical education was too expensive; even decades ago, when she considered it, the mean debt of medical school graduates was $18,652, with at least three more years of training to complete after that.

While she spent many years tending to all kinds of diseases and injuries, working across hospital specialties, her recent months have focused mainly on COVID-19 care. And of course, the coronavirus outbreak has made her and her colleagues worry about their own health, as well as that of their patients. In early March, Rodriguez learned that there were not enough masks for all members of the hospital staff; like so many institutions across the country, the hospital struggled to secure adequate levels of personal protective equipment, known as PPE.

“I felt like we were disposable,” Rodriguez said. Two of her colleagues got sick with COVID-19. While both survived, she said the sense of fear was palpable among her co-workers, especially as they watched members of their own families and communities get sick.

“I’m doing everything I can to not get COVID, but if it’s God’s will then it’s God’s will,” Rodriguez said. “But I don’t want to take it home. I have too many people depending on me.”

But the pandemic has also strengthened bonds in Rodriguez’s community of 35 interpreters, as they provide one another with emotional support. “There’s a liquor store on the corner, and on the worst days we say, ‘Let’s go to the corner,’ ” Rodriguez said. “We’re scared, not knowing if we are going to get the virus, but we’re holding those feelings in.”

— EMMA GOLDBERGHow Do You Lead a State’s Coronavirus Response? Ask Her

A few months ago, Dr. Ngozi Ezike’s four children — ages 18, 16, 13 and 11 — sat her down to deliver a PowerPoint presentation they had put together. It was a detailed assessment of how she was doing in her job as the leader of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“It was like, ‘Well, we’re really proud that you’re doing this important work. It’s cool that you’re on TV,” recalled Ezike, “‘But now we’re totally over it.’”

Their main complaint: She was never home anymore. While family friends were filling the gap, checking in on them and dropping off treats every now and then, they felt like they hadn’t seen their mom in weeks. And when she did get home, she was on the phone late.

“They were breaking it down for me from their perspective,” said Ezike in a recent phone interview, which happened to take place on the same day as her youngest child’s birthday. “It hurt.

“But I hope they’ll understand better with time why I had to sacrifice so much time away from them.”

Like Ezike, women across the country have been at the forefront of states’ round-the-clock, all-consuming emergency responses: More than 60% of state health directors are women, according to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

As appointed officials, state health directors typically play a behind-the-scenes role, identifying, tracking and planning interventions around public health risks. But this crisis has catapulted them into the spotlight, standing side by side with governors and mayors, quickly turning them into some of the country’s most recognisable faces. It is up to state health directors to corral data and come up with policy proposals for advising governors and the rest of the state on things like when to shut down, how to reopen businesses safely and where to set up testing sites.

But, in a combustible environment of heightened anxiety and increasingly partisan clashes over the emergency measures put in place, their every move and statement is scrutinised and dissected from every angle.

“I try to just stick with what’s the right thing to do and let the politicians do what they have to do,” Ezike said. “No one is positive of the exact right course — we’re building the plane as we’re trying to fly it.”

The criticism her team receives — and there is a lot, particularly over reopening the economy — is balanced out by the “many letters and cards of support and encouragement” sent to her offices, she added.

To date, there have been more than 180,000 cases of coronavirus in Illinois and more than 7,000 deaths, bringing the state’s fatality rate to about 61 deaths per 100,000.

But Illinois also has some of the country’s largest Black and Hispanic populations — communities that, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, are at a greater risk of dying from the disease, in part because of long-standing inequalities that have made access to health care harder.

“This virus didn’t create health disparities,” she said. “It’s just magnifying them.”


This Food Delivery Worker Won’t Let Coronavirus Get in Her Way

When D’Shea Grant has a tough day, she plays Mary J Blige. Lately, she’s been playing her a lot.

Grant, 41, works what feels like two full-time jobs: In the daytime, she’s taking care of her daughter, De’Onna, 20, who has cerebral palsy. At night, she’s delivering meals through DoorDash, a food delivery app. In between, she’s catching up on sleep.

Grant, who lives in New York City, is one of roughly 200,000 food delivery workers in the country; on food delivery apps, the majority are women. At DoorDash, women make up over half of its “dashers” in suburban areas and more than 60% in cities. Grant says she likes the flexibility of the work, which allows her to spend the day with her daughter at home.

But, of course, the pandemic has made everything more complicated.

Her deliveries now take longer because of the sanitising routine she does between each one. Her customers are on edge, and Grant is too. She struggles to keep her daughter focused during virtual classes and worries that the school shutdown could delay De’Onna’s graduation set for next year.

Leaving home to start her DoorDash shift isn’t easy for her, because she’s keenly aware of all the ways she can be exposed to the virus while on the job. And now she is one of New York’s front-line workers: more than 1 million essential workers, or 25% of the city workforce. Grant gets around by car, an Acura MDX that she bought in 2006.

“Do I ever take a bike? Heck no,” she laughed. (“But at first I thought you said, ‘Do I ever take a bite!’ Heck no, girl!”)

The nights are long, so she finds reasons to crack jokes throughout her delivery shifts. She likes to sing along to Lil Duval: “I ain’t going back and forth with you / I’m living my best life!”

Long nights are helped along by people’s responses when she delivers their orders — pizza, salad, lo mein. She likes making eye contact with her customers from across a lobby, even when they can’t interact. “They’ll wave to you like, ‘thank you!’ and you can tell by the body language that they’re happy to get a hot meal,” Grant said.

“That attitude of being thankful and appreciative goes further than a dollar bill,” she said.

But of course the tips are important, too. Thankfully some customers have boosted their tips. On a good night, Grant takes home between $110 and $160, including wages and tips, from her seven-hour shift. Her mother watches De’Onna while she is at work.

De’Onna is supposed to graduate next June from PS 233 in South Jamaica, Queens, which serves students with special needs.

“I hope we can go back to our routine so De’Onna can ride the bus and show off her brand-new wheelchair,” she said.

Evening arrives, and Grant gets ready to leave the house. She kisses her daughter goodbye. Then she takes out her mask and gloves, and she says a prayer. “I’m not fearful; I’m cautious,” she said. “Because fear will stop you, and I don’t want anything to stop me from helping others.”


c.2020 The New York Times Company

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher