What will you do if your workplace closes down? If you get laid off because they can't afford to pay you? What do you do when your job doesn't provide health insurance or paid sick leave? How do you go to work when it could be damaging your health and the health of your community? These are some of the questions that I and other members of the Athens service industry have been asking ourselves during the sudden outbreak of COVID-19.
The newly enacted emergency ordinances in Athens-Clarke County, along with the University of Georgia’s shift to online learning, have impacted the restaurants and shops that employ both locals and students. Following the orders of Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission, nonessential businesses have been ordered to close and all others must adhere to new social distancing guidelines. These guidelines include a limit of 10 individuals allowed in establishments, keeping a six-foot distance from others and an urge to shift to carry-out and delivery services only.
Small businesses in Athens such as Ike and Jane had already closed under the pressure of increasing rent prices. These new guidelines also forced other small businesses like The Grill and Pauley’s Crepe Bar to close as well, at least temporarily. This comes as other businesses adjust their services and hours, cutting staff’s hours in the process.
Many service industry workers, including students, live paycheck-to-paycheck and depend on consistent hours to pay rent, bills and living expenses. While everyone wants to avoid a devastating loss of income, workers now have to consider that going to work is potentially hazardous to our health. Many of us feel a moral imperative to stay home and protect ourselves and the public health, but our jobs aren't closing.
During this pandemic, the Athens businesses that have remained open are relying on their staff to come to work, despite evidence this could be dangerous. Those who are still working have to cope with changes in their usual work-day in the form of severe cuts in hours leading to a decreased income. In response to COVID-19, businesses are implementing new sanitizing and cleaning procedures. The workers not only have to adapt to these new policies, but they also have to do so with the knowledge that these changes are more for the safety and health of the customers, not the staff.
At my job (which I am not mentioning for fear of retaliation), additional cleaning procedures ensure the lobby area is cleaned almost hourly, but they do not outline any additional cleaning in the back where the employees work. The lack of protection for staff disproportionately affects delivery drivers as they are expected to continue delivery procedures as usual. Customers can request contactless delivery, but drivers themselves cannot request this option. In addition, drivers are not given any protective materials such as wipes, hand sanitizer or gloves to keep with them in their cars.
For me, my job effectively makes social distancing impossible. I do my best to adhere to the almost daily memos about new procedures, yet I continue to face backlash from confused customers. I’ve printed out signs for the door that read “We Appreciate our Loyal Customers” along with a reassuring message, but I have yet to receive anything from my company that shows they appreciate their workers.
Some companies that still have locations open across the country, such as Starbucks, are offering bonuses to the employees that continue to work while giving paid sick leave to the workers who chose to stay home. My job has not offered any such incentives. My company also refuses to waive the need for a doctor’s note to call out sick, despite evidence that visiting the doctor at this time can be inaccessible or dangerous. This can be especially problematic for those of us in the service industry whose employers do not offer health insurance for workers.
I applaud businesses that stay open and give the public access to essential services, but I implore them to consider who is really providing these services, to think about the people making the food, delivering the groceries, sanitizing the entire store on an hourly basis and dealing with a justifiably confused and afraid customer base.
I hope that this time of uncertainty and fear shows businesses and the general public that service industry workers deserve respect and should not be taken for granted. The people working in the service industry are dealing with fear and anxiety about leaving our homes, along with everyone else. We deserve appreciation for continuing a dependable service in a time filled with precariousness and change.