My life is worth $13.50 an hour

To work and potentially be exposed to a life-threatening virus, or to have no source of income to live? These are the questions the essential workers of today are faced with.

The coronavirus has defined essential workers to be an employee designated by the state who are required to work during the pandemic because they offer a valuable and necessary service, but being one feels like an excuse for the government to keep the economy open. 

I work at an acai bowl shop five minutes away from the Long Beach State campus, and one would think acai bowls are more of a privilege than necessity, but we never closed down. I was given more hours because my boss assumed that since I was no longer physically going to school, I would be available to put in more hours since a few of my coworkers had made the decision to leave. I hesitantly agreed, thinking I could save the money in case I found myself unemployed due to the pandemic. 

We did what every restaurant had to do, masks were required for employees and customers, a piece of plexiglass was installed to protect us while taking orders, new cleaning rituals were implemented into our routines. It was what was expected to prepare ourselves for something we had no control over. We couldn’t predict whether the pandemic would put the shop out of business, or whether we would make enough money to get by. We took each day as they came, because that was all we could do. 

In the two years I’ve worked for the shop, our boss has never been overly involved with in-shop operations. As an employee, I did my part to make sure the place ran as smoothly as possible. COVID-19 hit, and working there became a nightmare. It was a constant battle between responsibility and the fear of contracting the virus myself. 

How much was I actually willing to risk for the sake of making money? It’s an unfair question to ask, because I don’t have a choice. I’m a typical college student, fitting into the starving student stereotype. I need this job to sustain living, so not working is not an option. 

Working throughout the pandemic feels more mentally draining than anything. It was like the coronavirus bred a new wave of rude customers. We have our share of kind-hearted souls that ask how we’re doing and leave us generous tips, but then we have the ever-so-entitled rule breakers. The ones who are so offended when we ask them politely to wear a mask, they lash out at us screaming “IT’S NOT ILLEGAL!”, or string together a colorful choice of curse words that rhyme with tuck, too and titch. 

We receive complaints over 45 minute wait times, people have spit at me through the window of our restaurant to try to get my attention, and I’ve had customers yell at me over the phone when I tell them we have a menu available online. 

We work through $60 orders, while receiving no tips.

Working in food service has tested my patience. It’s easy to call yourself essential, but to go through a day’s work and go home with only $5 in tip, if I’m lucky, is discouraging. Sure, we can post “thank yous” to grocery clerks and food industry employees all over social media, but being an essential worker myself, these posts come across as empty gestures. We’re the ones putting ourselves out there for the sake of being able to live day to day, and I hate to say that the ratio of good to bad customers is leaning heavily towards the bad. 

I’ve lived the last seven months with such conflicting emotions. I hate the way I’m treated at my job, but there’s also a panging weight of guilt telling me to be grateful that I even have a job to begin with. 

No one was prepared for this. The nation shut down in the span of two days, and it terrified everyone. It brought out the worst in humanity, and yes, I’m talking to those of you who were fighting over toilet paper. But more than anything, this virus has exposed the inequities in our severely flawed system; one that forces people to choose between being healthy, or affording to live, that prioritizes profit over people.

 The norm is having a government that is reluctant to take care of us, because maintaining the health of the economy is worth sacrificing a “few lives.” The lives worth sacrificing are not the lives of the 1% working from the comfort of their homes. Instead it is the majority of the already vulnerable, low-income community of color. The ones that have no choice but to do the jobs that no one else wants to do.

Their lives are deemed disposable at the hands of a government unwilling to admit that the virus is unfairly targeting communities that don’t have a choice except to put themselves in harm’s way. The government socialized me to believe a few pieces of paper is worth risking my life.

 If I test positive for the virus, my boss might worry more about finding someone to cover my shift, than about my health. But it will all have been worth it, because I risked my life to make an acai bowl for someone who felt like they were above wearing a mask, right?


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