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One of the biggest takeaways of 2020 is just how essential our economy’s essential workers are.
During the COVID-19 pandemic many employees are working from home in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. But some jobs can’t be done at home, and some of those are absolutely essential to keep our economy and our world moving forward.
So, this special report is a tribute to those essential workers who this year did the jobs that had to be done, in person and in some cases putting their own health at risk. We thank them and we salute them.
In this report, read Q&As with essential workers from the health care, senior living, grocery and trucking industries, and an educator.
Liz LaSelva, a registered nurse at Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, talks about her experience of working in a COVID-19 unit at the hospital. Emily Alessi, director of nursing for Congregational Home in Brookfield, talks about working in a senior living facility, serving an at-risk population during the pandemic. Don Ficht, a truck driver, driver trainer and driver liaison for Oak Creek-based Aim Transfer & Storage Inc., talks about the vital service truckers have provided during the pandemic. Charlene Osheim, a special education teacher at Engleburg Elementary School in Milwaukee, talks about how teachers have done their jobs in 2020. Tony Myers, assistant store manager for Outpost Natural Foods, talks about the vital role of grocery stores and their employees.
This report also includes a look at the banking industry and its employees, who stepped up this year to administer the massive volume of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans provided by the federal government to help businesses get through shutdowns during the early days of the pandemic.
RN, charge nurse, Aurora Sinai COVID-19 unit Years in industry: 5 Years with Aurora Health Care: 5
How much does the challenge of caring for COVID patients add to the work day for you?
“It adds a lot. It was a shift for us as far as our instincts went. Normally, when we would get a call from a patient … it’s just our instinct to jump up and to go to them, and we had to shift that very quickly to, no, we have to put on all of this PPE first before we go into the room, you have make sure that you have everything that you need. You can’t go in and out of the room all that easily. It’s very time-consuming. And it’s difficult, too, because we can’t spend as much time with our patients as we would like to.”
When did you realize COVID was going to be different?
“I want to say around mid-March I had my first COVID medical emergency and it was the oddest thing that I had ever seen, really, in nursing. I had a patient whose oxygen level kept dropping. ... No signs of distress at all. Her respiratory rate is normal. Her respiratory pattern is normal. She’s talking to me like nothing is wrong. So, I thought there was something wrong with the machinery. I went and got a different machine and I’m still checking and same thing. She just keeps dropping. I called a STAT team and everybody that’s allowed to comes into the room and I kind of looked around and realized that I wasn’t the only person that didn’t understand what was going on. … There was that split moment where I looked around and realized none of us really know what’s going on and then it hit me, this is going to be bad.”
As this has dragged on, how has COVID shaped your unit and your colleagues, the stress and the burnout of it?
“There are definitely days where I sit in my car before work, in the parking garage and I have to talk myself into going in to work. Can I do this again for another 12, 14, 16 hours? And that never really happened before. It wasn’t a thing before and it’s a thing now.
“I think the anxiety is different than it was before. I think in the beginning it was a little chaotic, we didn’t really know what we were doing, information was changing, not on a weekly basis or a daily basis, it was changing every hour. ... Now we’re able to anticipate things as they come along. … We’re better with our treatments, so it’s still stressful, but it’s a little more comforting at least having an idea of knowing what we’re doing.”
What does the public not understand about the challenge of treating COVID patients?
“I don’t watch television that often, but recently I’ve been watching a little bit more of it and I’ve seen these portrayals and I think they’re very interesting. I’m like, ‘That’s not what’s going on in our hospital.’ … I’ve gotten a lot of ‘Thank you so much for what you’re doing, I bet you it’s very difficult what you’re going through,’ and as a nurse, I almost feel like I want to say ‘Yeah, but it’s even harder for me because I hurt more watching my patients have to go through it.’ I just feel very sad for them. It’s lonely. It’s a lonely, sad, scary process for them to go through and I don’t know if the public realizes that. It looks kind of neat when you see it on TV. ... It looks like everybody is hustling around and there’s all these people around you.There’s really not, you’re really just kind of stuck there by yourself.”
Is there anything else you would want people to know about your work? Ways the public can support you?
“A lot of people in my neighborhood and then family and friends know that I’m a nurse, so I get a lot of questions all the time, which is fine. I mean there are days where I just don’t feel like talking about anything that has to do (with COVID), I just need a break, I don’t want to talk about the virus right now, but I understand that people want information. It’s been very difficult for me and I’ve talked to a lot of my coworkers and they feel the same, just the amount of misinformation that has been out there, people ask us questions but I feel like they don’t like our answers. They want us to answer questions in a way that’s going to support what they’re feeling or what they’ve heard or what they want to hear, and we’re not able to do that. We’re just going to tell you what we see and what we know.
“…I would suggest to really follow the science. The virus really couldn’t care less about politics, about money, about our egos, it’s going to go on its course as it’s going to go, and I would just ask people to have patience. Science takes time, it takes experience. I realize that some of our recommendations now are not the same as what they were two months ago, four months ago, in the beginning, but that’s OK, because we’re learning and as we learn our recommendations are going to be different and that’s a good sign. That means that we’re doing our jobs as medical professionals and epidemiologists, virologists. I would just ask that people pay more attention to that as opposed to the politics and the media that are surrounding it. And just to be kind to yourself, be kind to each other, there’s really no point in arguing about this, it’s here.”
Assistant store manager, Outpost Natural Foods Years at Outpost: 4
How did the pandemic initially impact your work?
“In March, right before the governor issued the mandatory stay-at-home order, all of our stores were crushed with customers. … Essentially, we were being exposed as everyone just rushed into the stores. We were doing record sales – higher sales than holiday season sales in that week before the mandatory shutdown.
“The aisles were packed. Store staff were already required to wear masks, customers were not. There were just people everywhere, and you’re trying to stack shelves – you’re down there stocking shelves, and there’s people over you, reaching, grabbing, taking things, filling up carts. It was unnerving, to put it lightly.
“All of us, from our clerks up to store managers, were all very concerned about our wellbeing, mainly because of what was happening around us with customers. We still wanted to take very good care of our customers and see to it that their needs were met, but our safety was certainly compromised before the panic buying finally settled down.
“I lost 20 pounds because of an overactive thyroid that was triggered by the stress. And then when you went home, not knowing whether or not you were exposed to someone and then bringing that home to your family – it’s frightening, really frightening.”
What remains challenging?
“Now, as we’ve gotten deeper into this thing, the challenge is running a business that’s a people business, which is really what retail is. Our biggest asset to the co-op is our staff, and our people. As people get sick and quarantine or get the virus, we have no control over that. And so, there are some days where we’ll have two, three, four people out of the store at once because of exposure to the virus. It’s hard to run a business when you don’t know if you’re going to have enough staff to do the things that need to get done.
“Also being short staffed. In spite of high unemployment in the state, we’re not able to find enough people to work. I suspect it’s because of the nature of being a customer-facing job that people are afraid to take a job like that during a pandemic.”
What’s kept you motivated when things get tough?
“When retail employees were dubbed as essential workers, I felt like there was a duty that we still need to show up and do as much as we could to try and push down that fear, and do what we needed to do to keep the shelves full and keep our owners and customers happy.
“We really felt it was our duty to our customers and to our community where we operate to come in and ensure that we’re able to keep the stores running, in spite of the risks that were involved. If it was just a paycheck, I think a lot of folks would have said ‘This isn’t for me,’ but there was a real commitment from our staff and management to make sure that we’re here for our community that needs us.”
Has the pandemic shaped the store’s holiday season preparation?
“As a co-op we didn’t know what to expect going into this holiday season. One of the most predictable things is the cycle of product that’s coming in and out of the stores, the buying that we need to do of certain items, even the end caps and displays, because it’s what we do every year. All of that goes out the window because we just don’t know what to expect.”
What’s one takeaway from this experience?
“There was always this joke in high school that if you don’t get good grades, if you don’t go to school, if you don’t go to college, you’re going to end up working in a grocery store the rest of your life. It was kind of looked upon as this thing that one should be ashamed of.
“For the first time, I think ever, the nation recognized retail employees as being essential to the economy. … We are an essential part of your survival in this pandemic and I think it’s finally hit home. Now, people really won’t look down upon the kid that’s stocking the shelf or the woman who’s cutting meat or running the register. It kind of casts us in a different light now, and I think that’s good for everybody.”
Special education teacher, 4th and 5th grade, Engleburg Elementary School Years in education: Paraprofessional assistant for 28 years; teacher for 8 years. Years with Milwaukee Public Schools: 36 years
Before COVID hit, what did an ordinary day look like for you and how is it different now?
“Get the kids off the bus, come in, have breakfast, some kids would go to regular ed classes with support, some would stay in here and I would teach in whole group. … Now I split the kids up into three groups online. It’s working out really well. In the summer, when we found out we weren’t coming back (in person), I lost a lot of sleep. Because I was like, ‘How am I going to make this work better for my kids?’ … They need hands-on (work). It took me a little while to figure this out, but we did.
“We do a lot of hands-on work, but in order to do that, I have to deliver materials to them. So, I run everything off (on the copier) and I do it every two weeks now. We do reading curriculum, we do math, we do science and social studies. A lot of the science and social studies I have been buying. I buy booklets and workbooks that go with it. … I go to each and every child’s house. And I don’t only service those children, but I service a couple of the siblings. I want it to be a family thing.”
Are you still coming into school even though your students are learning from home?
“I come in every day so I have my materials on hand. I’m here by 8 in the morning. I start my groups at 9.
“I also deliver the lunches to the children. Every Friday that I deliver the materials, I deliver meals too. And sometimes (the cafeteria staff) are gracious enough that they have vegetable bags that they have left over and I can take those to the families too.”
How has communication with your students’ families changed?
“I love it. The parents are so welcoming. They’re very welcoming. … We communicate on the phone. I text, they call; I call; they text. Communication is so open. There are some years I never get to meet the parents. Not this year. A lot them have been sitting right there next to their kids the whole time, helping them. I text my parents on weekends, they’ll text me. I always tell them I’m available until after midnight when I’m sleeping. I have fantastic parents, they have been awesome.”
How has it been to balance your work and life?
“I love it. This is my life. These are my kids until I retire, which will be in about four to five years.
“I spoil my children. They’ll get stockings for St. Nick and they all get a gift for Christmas, even the siblings. It’s all ready for them. At Halloween, I took them all a pumpkin. We were learning (about) the life cycle, so we did the life cycle of the pumpkin and they all had their own pumpkin to carve at home and we could talk about the life cycle and how many seeds were in there. These kids had a blast. You have to do a little bit over and above to keep your kids engaged.”
Director of nursing, Congregational Home, Brookfield Years as a nurse: 9 Years at Congregational Home: 3
How would you describe your past 9 months?
“Challenging and rewarding. I don’t think anyone has imagined something like this would occur within our lives and it has definitely changed us all in some way. For me, it has shown me what I truly am capable of as a nurse and as a leader. It has taught me a new respect for my team. They were also challenged with this pandemic, but they continued to put our residents first even though they were scared. It has taught me a new respect for my residents and families as they adapted to every change we made and trusted our decisions. It made me look at my team differently and has brought us all closer together.
“Personally, there have definitely been days that I have struggled. There have been many sleepless nights. I think we have all struggled to balance work and home, but when a nurse calls for reassurance that she made the right decision for a resident, I can’t ignore that. It is my job to support my team.”
How have you changed the way you care for your residents?
“A lot of our time is spent connecting our residents with their families through window visits or video calls. We all know seniors are the most vulnerable to COVID, so we have unfortunately had to implement tough visiting restrictions, only letting residents see family through a closed window or video screen. We were able to support some heartwarming socially distanced reunions during the summer, but that was short-lived as it was canceled when the surge hit Wisconsin. Having to see our residents and families separated for so long is the most heartbreaking part of this pandemic. Can you imagine not seeing family since March? This is a reality for many of our residents.”
What have you had to do to keep yourself and your family healthy?
“I don’t go to social gatherings, only leave the house for essential reasons and wear my mask everywhere. I do many grocery pickups as well to avoid having to go into a store where I may be at risk. I have spent a lot of time educating my kids on what is best to protect ourselves and everyone around us. Even my 3-year-old will tattle on people if she sees them without masks. Kids adapt well to change and mine have never complained about any of the new precautions. I don’t plan to attend any holiday gatherings this year. But it is OK. I would rather follow these protective guidelines than not be here and able to help my team through this. Or worse, bring it in here and expose our residents.”
What would you like the community to know about your experience this year?
“If anything good comes from this, it’s that this disease has really highlighted our support for one another. More specifically, support for long-term care. We are often forgotten in health care and I believe this pandemic has highlighted the amazing work that we do. We have stepped up and taken many patients from the hospitals, to empty their beds. We have made an extreme effort to provide hospital level care within our walls, to avoid having to send people to the hospital where they risk exposure and take up a bed needed by a COVID patient. We have served as temporary families while our residents are away from theirs. Most importantly, we have worked tirelessly to protect the most vulnerable and we have shown what we are capable of.”
Driver, driver trainer and driver liaison, Aim Transfer & Storage Inc. Years in Industry: About 30 Years at Aim Transfer: 7.5
In what ways has your job changed since the pandemic?
“Like everybody that’s doing this, I’m sure, as an essential worker we have to follow the guidelines (as recommended by health officials). And we as a company put in place extra guidelines. Of course, we have to keep moving freight, so everybody has to know what the guidelines are.
“Our drivers use tablets for signing and logging, and everything just comes through that. Before, we could come into (customers’) buildings, but they don’t allow that anymore. So, our customers are taking precautions as well.”
Can you give a sense of how much busier drivers have been this year during the outbreak?
“With the pandemic going on, it takes more to prepare and to do it the proper way. What I mean by that is there are more guidelines to follow, which can add more to your day. Whereas something would normally take five minutes, now it takes 10. It puts stress that way on a driver. They have to follow all those rules and handle their business, (while) following the customer guidelines, whether it’s wearing gloves, using hand sanitizer, washing your hands.
“All this, it adds to their day, and more stress. But we’ve got a good base of guys, and those guys know how to rock it. When I’m out there driving, I follow everything that has to be followed.”
What would you say the biggest challenge is of working in the COVID-19 era?
“As of right now, there’s a lot of people working from home but they still need to go out and do their daily functions. So, there’s more traffic at places on the road, I feel, because people get quarantined in their home. I’ve noticed more drivers, walkers and runners. You have all those distractions of people who normally are in a business working for nine to 10 hours, they’re now out on the road. So, it adds to the stress level, because you have more people out there who normally wouldn’t be.”
How do drivers ensure you’re keeping yourselves healthy and motivated to continue working?
“Communication and talking together is a big help to all of us. … If they’re feeling a little down and out, I’ll pick up the phone and call them. You just stay in touch with them because they are lone rangers out there. And they sit in a truck 11, 12 hours a day. I just try to stay in contact with them, and make sure everything is OK. A lot of times if I’m not in the truck, I’ll go out in the yard and have a conversation with them. Talk with them and see how things are. I deal with all the equipment, so I’m always in touch with them. They like knowing somebody is watching out for them.”
What’s it like for drivers knowing they’re essential workers and that they’re keeping the economy moving even during a shutdown?
“It makes us feel good knowing that we’re keeping things rolling, that we’re helping people. We’re trying to keep the economy going. … It’s very important, and we all understand that. I’ve got to say, that is our pride and our push. Because, if you don’t have truckers, you don’t have product. You don’t have a way to keep the economy going. I give our guys a lot of credit for doing what they do. It’s not easy, but they know what they’ve got to do and how they’ve got to do it. And they’re looking out for their families, too. It’s very important, and they understand that. So, my hat’s off to them.”