‘I can be the person helping.’ On the frontlines with America’s essential workers

From a fast food manager to a Syrian refugee doctor, meet the people still showing up for work.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty
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Farm workers in California pick lemons inside the orchards of Samag Services, Inc. Agricultural laborers are essential workers in the race to maintain Americas food supply. But many farms are being criticized for not enforcing social distancing or other safety measures to protect them.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty

On a Friday morning in early April, Heval Kelli covered himself in head-to-toe scrubs, a hair net, mask, and booties. Then he took his place as a volunteer physician among the traffic cones winding a course through a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in the small town of Clarkston, Georgia. It was here, on the outskirts of Atlanta, that Kelli had first arrived 19 years earlier as a refugee from Syria.

Now, he felt, it was his turn to return the favor. “I’m coming back during the American crisis,” he says. “Instead of being the person who needs help, I can be the person helping.”

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Dr. Heval Kelli (right) and Dr. Sean Lindsey (left) volunteer with the Ethne Health COVID-19 testing drive-thru in Clarkston, Georgia. Kelli moved to Clarkston in 2001 as a refugee from Syria. Now, he says, he's paying back the town's kindness.

This motivation threads through a diverse range of essential workers across the United States. It drives Ana-Cara Van Dyck to prepare classwork packets for her students in a rural Alaskan town without internet. It’s shared by 83-year-old Paulette Della Volla, who works six days a week at a McDonald’s in Maryland while younger staff decline to come in. And it moves Sharmin Hoque, in New York, to run “an unofficial support group for kids of taxi drivers.”

Across the United States, 316 million people are under stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The mandates, issued by 42 states, exclude “essential workers,” who provide healthcare, food, transportation, education, and other services deemed indispensable.

Whether driven by a humanitarian calling or compelled by economic survival, nearly 49 million essential workers continue to show up to work across the country, despite the fact that there are now over one million COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and more than 58,000 deaths. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of essential workers, from public transit staff to doctors, are among the dead. A new University of Washington study estimates that upwards of 380,000 U.S. healthcare workers could be killed by COVID-19.

None of the four federal coronavirus relief bills have included guaranteed paid sick leave or hazard pay for essential workers. Some employers have offered additional wages and new safety measures. Many have not. Last week, workers at Amazon went on strike, and nurses protested a lack of protective equipment in front of the White House. Farm and factory employees have found their workplaces shut down after becoming virus hotspots.

For those who can’t work from the safety of their homes, what is life like on the frontlines?

The volunteer physician

Clarkston, Georgia, has been called the “Ellis Island of the South” for the 40,000 refugees it has welcomed in the past three decades. In 2001, 18-year-old Kurd Heval Kelli was one of them, arriving from Syria two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Nearly 20 years later, Kelli is a cardiology fellow working at a large Atlanta hospital and as a volunteer physician in his adopted hometown during the COVID-19 response.

“I came during the worst time of U.S. history as a Muslim refugee and I was welcomed by southern white Christian conservatives,” Kelli says. “Now I’m going back during this crisis and returning the favor.”

In February, Kelli noticed that information about the coronavirus threat was not reaching immigrants, refugees, and the poor. He and his wife, a fellow cardiologist named Kazeen Abdullah, started translating CDC data into Kurdish and Arabic and fielding calls and texts from members of the diaspora, who relay their symptoms and ask whether they should seek medical attention.

Kelli also hosts Zoom calls and a Facebook Live Q&A series with other doctors on the frontlines. So far, he says, it’s working: There are no known coronavirus deaths in the Kurdish community of Atlanta. He’s now trying to set up a similar information pipeline for the city’s Burmese population.

When he was 11, Kelli had been beaten by Syrian police and watched them arrest his father. Abdullah, his wife, crossed a mountain range in Iraq to flee ethnic cleansing. “We’ve been through trauma,” says Kelli, “and feel like now we can step up and be there for Americans.”

The teacher without Wi-Fi

While most of the country’s classrooms have transitioned to video lessons and Zoom study groups, no one in the 400-person village a rural part of Alaska has internet at home. The 3G network is so slow “I could knit a sweater in the time it takes me to upload a two-minute video,” says language arts teacher Ana-Cara Van Dyck. (She asked her village not be named.)

Teachers at the 70-student secondary school had to adapt: Every day, they go into the building at staggered times to use the internet, print assignments, and update grades. When families come to the school cafeteria, the largest communal building in town, to pick up food for students and elders, they also receive a packet of classwork and returned assignments.

The assignments are light compared to a typical course load. Instead of an essay comparing two short stories, for instance, Van Dyck will assign a short prompt and five vocabulary words based on a few pages of reading. She thinks of it as a shot of brain food, and she’s gratified to get questions back from students by phone, text—even shouting at a safe distance.

“We’re giving work, checking in, hearing they’re stressed, and we can’t be there,” Van Dyck says. “We can only text them and remind them: You can do this! Don't let the coronavirus ruin your hopes and dreams of becoming a pilot or nurse or whatever your dream was.”

But Van Dyck is worried. Alaska has higher-than-average rates of depression among high school students and the highest per capita suicide rate in the United States. The classroom is a rare quiet place for her students to reflect and think about the lives they want, away from the aunts, cousins, and grandparents most of them live with. Without it, she fears some will give up pursing an education.

“I think there’s an apathy connected to a deeper anxiety,” she says. “Realistically speaking, what can we accomplish until there’s a vaccine? For a kid in 11th grade, they’re staring down the nose of the question: What does my future look like?”

And what does the future look like if students can’t get a quality education? “If you take away that empowerment ,I’m so scared of what the world will look like 10 to 20 years from now,” she says. “Our young people won’t have received what they needed.”

The police advocate

In mid-March, when the governor of Texas declared a statewide emergency, Manuel Ramirez, a homicide detective-turned-president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association went to city officials with a request: His 1,700 officers needed to be covered for COVID-19 as for any other lethal threat.

The city agreed: Any officer infected with coronavirus would be presumed to have caught it on duty. If they died, their families would be taken care of. “It’s no different than being shot in the line of duty,” says Ramirez. So far, seven officers on the force have contracted COVID-19 (all are recovering).

Policing in Fort Worth today only loosely resembles pre-pandemic law enforcement. Morning roll calls are cancelled, two-person patrols are limited, and tactics that put police on the offensive are downplayed. The directive is to prioritize only the most necessary interactions with the public. Partly because of this, Ramirez says, the city’s murder rate is up 73 percent from this time last year.

Ramirez says his city’s officers have started to think of the virus as just another risk of the profession. “We’ve always had a dangerous job, but your nurses, grocery store workers, truck drivers—those folks are not prepared for a dangerous job. We’re prepared,” he says. “To a certain extent.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has hit law enforcement ranks across the country. Officer Marc Perez (center) and his partner, Nelson Hammons (right) hand out masks and gloves in a park in Detroit, Michigan. Out of 2,800 employees of the Detroit Police Department, 186 have tested positive for the virus.

The ICU nurse

Bre O’Connell’s nursing shifts at NYU Winthrop in Long Island don’t end until 7:30 p.m., so she misses the applause for health workers that echoes across New York every evening half an hour earlier. One recent night when she left the hospital, she found a voicemail on her phone: Her kids had recorded the city’s cheers for her.

O’Connell’s floor, which typically cares for patients recovering from heart surgery, was converted into an 18-bed ICU in early April. Nurses arrived from Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan to help. Patients were depressed, withdrawn, and rapidly deteriorating. O’Connell felt she was taking care of a floor of zombies. In the first few weeks, 13 of the 20 dayshift nurses she usually works with contracted the virus.

“The anxiety level was through the roof,” she says. “You’re looking on social media and all you’re seeing is healthcare providers dying as a result of the virus or [lack of] access to personal protective equipment.” At least 46 nurses nationwide have died since the beginning of the crisis.

O’Connell has been extremely cautious. Before entering her house, she changes into a robe in a small hut her husband built out of two folding tables. The two of them haven’t visited their parents since early March. At night O’Connell’s sleep is unsettled by “extremely detailed dreams about death.”

In recent days, O’Connell has seen the caseload at the hospital lighten and felt the mood lift—just slightly. The majority of the hospital’s 591 beds are still occupied by COVID-19 patients, but the “COVID Today” update she gets each day shows a decline. The sick nurses on her floor have all recovered. Her colleagues rely heavily on each other for support. It’s hard, she says, for their families to understand what they’ve experienced.

“This is crazy,” O’Connell says. “But the alternative of not being at work or sitting at home does not interest me whatsoever. If [someone is] going to be alone in their last few hours, and if I can help just a little bit, I’m happy to do so and I’m proud to do so.”

The cab driver's daughter

One evening in mid-April, when Sharmin Hoque called her father, a New York taxi driver, to share that a family friend had passed away, he started listing cab drivers who’d also died in the pandemic. Afterwards, she typed a tweet out on her phone: “My dad lost 5 friends to COVID in the last 12 hrs. Fellow cabbies & other service workers. He sounded so withdrawn on the phone. My focus is child & millenial [sic] mental health. I feel completely unprepared to deal w the devastating impact of this pandemic on our parents wellbeing.”

Hoque’s father, Mohammed, had been driving nights in New York for a decade. About a month ago, the 53-year-old looked around his house in Queens, where 17 relatives live in three units, and determined that working wasn’t worth the risk. He and his brother, who takes the day shift, hung up their keys, and have tapped into their savings and applied for unemployment.

After Hoque sent that tweet, the responses poured in—prayers, death reports, notes from children caring for parents. Tens of thousands of people liked the tweet. Hoque later muted the thread. Twitter, along with Facebook, had become overwhelming—an endless stream of obituaries. Queens now has more coronavirus deaths than any other county in America. “I’m grieving constantly to the point where it feels like I’m choking,” she says.

Unable to mourn in the usual, communal ways, people have flocked to her phone inbox: It has become “an unofficial support group for kids of taxi drivers,” she says. Many of them have lost fathers and uncles. Nearly a quarter of New York’s cabdrivers are Bangladeshi—more than any other ethnicity.

Both Hoque and her husband work in public health and serve on the board of Muslims Thrive, an organization focused on mental health in the Muslim community. The pair has become a go-to resource for Bangladeshis in Queens. Hoque frequently posts links and infographics in her family group chats, translating important information into Bengali.

“Many immigrants are relying on their kids for info and resources,” she says. “We’ve been doing it since we could talk.” And she continues to offer lifesaving information to the community, she says, in honor of the “cab drivers who didn’t know they could collect unemployment and worked until they got sick, and then worked until they passed away.”

The labor organizer

When the essential worker order went out in March, Erik Nicholson saw a chance for vindication. For 30 years he has lobbied for farm workers to get their fair due. Now, as the national vice president of the United Farm Workers union, he envisioned long-deserved recognition for the men and women in the fields.

It didn’t materialize. Instead, most farm workers continue to live in close quarters, travel in crammed buses, and work without access to soap and running water. In Washington state, where Nicholson is based, the coronavirus crisis has made their lives even harder: Wages haven’t increased but childcare costs have quadrupled due to school closures. Farm workers can’t take advantage of food bank and school distributions because they work during those hours. Many are undocumented, and therefore not eligible for unemployment if they lose their jobs or get sick.

“That [essential worker] designation has dramatically reduced the quality of life of many farm workers,” says Nicholson. “By the mere fact that they continue to work they’ve put their lives at risk, and they’re poorer and hungrier than they were before.”

As meatpacking plants shut down across the country—2,200 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in 48 factories so far—Nicholson fears that America’s harvest is next. In May, 250,000 seasonal workers are set to arrive in the United States from Mexico, typically on buses. More than 20,000 of them will come to Washington, where they will likely live and work in close quarters without protection.

Last week, the UFW sued the state to compel farms to provide protection—from enforced social distancing to improved sanitation—for workers. “We don't see them as essential like the healthcare workers and grocery store clerks. Farm workers are out of sight, out of mind,” says Nicholson.

There’s no official count of farmworker coronavirus cases in Washington, but last week, all 71 employees at an orchard were tested after three people fell ill. Thirty-six people tested positive, and none had displayed symptoms. The orchard has not yet announced whether it will pause operations. “You’ve gone from 3 to 71 like that,” Nicholson says, snapping his fingers. “That’s how fast our food chain can collapse.”

The restaurant manager

Paulette Della Volla survived the German occupation of France during World War II, married a U.S. airman, moved to America, and has managed the same McDonalds in Maryland for 41 years. At 83, she works six days a week, starting at 4 a.m. She doesn’t see a reason to stop now, even though each week another staffer calls to say they won’t be coming into work. Most say their parents no longer want them exposed to the virus.

The schedule has been cut in half, and only 10 staff, including Della Volla, work at a time. They wear face masks and space out the customers in line. The pace of business has slowed so drastically that she can accommodate a dwindling staff. But closing is not an option for Della Volla. If she didn’t keep the restaurant running, where would her remaining customers eat? She’s known most of them for decades. “I think it would be a big impact on them,” she says. “They don’t have nowhere to go.”

And so Della Volla has no plans to wait out the pandemic at home with her dog. Her son and daughter know she won’t, she says, so they haven’t dared to ask her. She laughs at the suggestion. “Who me? No, no. When my time comes it will come,” she says. “I’m not worried at all. Not for myself.”

The grocery store cashier

Katy Johnson has lived in the 1,500-person village of Cuba, New York, her whole life, so when strangers began shopping at the independent grocery store where she works, she noticed immediately. After the Walmarts and Wegmans ran out of staples, people began driving 45 minutes to her store (which she prefers not to be named) from larger towns across the region.

The head customer service cashier, Johnson knows she’s taking a risk coming to work six days a week during the pandemic. But the stream of new customers means job security. Listening to her customers share their woes about applying for unemployment, Johnson is increasingly grateful for a paycheck.

It’s not just groceries that are essential during this pandemic, she says. Every morning, an elderly man comes into the store. After his wife passed away earlier this year, he started visiting daily to pick out a fresh-baked donut from the case and joke with the baker behind the counter. “Oh these damn donuts,” he’d say.

When the lockdown began, the store stopped making donuts. One day, the baker asked the widower for his favorite kind. From then on, she’s whipped up a single donut for him each morning. Johnson could tell it made his day.

“I'm just giving people what they need to make dinner tonight,” says Johnson. “But people need a connection to other people, too. We’re able to offer that.”