‘Essential’ Or Not, These Workers Report For Duty

Apr 1, 2020 | Health


Heidi de Marco | Contributor

West Hollywood, CA – Pauline Lawrence is 63, an age that puts her at increased risk if she contracts COVID-19.

Yet, three days a week, she spends 16 hours with someone at even greater risk: a 97-year-old man who depends on her and two other home health aides to survive.

“Somebody has to take care of him,” said Lawrence, an immigrant from Jamaica who lives with her 30-year-old son in a South Los Angeles apartment. “I will stand up to do what I have to do to help.”

Under California’s statewide stay-at-home order that is intended to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus — as well as similar orders issued by cities and counties — many businesses must shut down completely. More than 30 governors have issued similar orders for their states.

But the orders allow “essential” businesses to remain open and “essential” workers to stay on the job.

Who’s considered “essential”? For starters, health care workers, law enforcement personnel, plumbers and grocery store clerks. But many workers dubbed essential are not as obvious, including cannabis dispensary and entertainment industry employees under California’s statewide order, and gardeners and landscapers under the Los Angeles County order.

Among the people who continue to work without the luxury of working from home are a high percentage of low-wage earners, those who earn median hourly wages of $10.22, according to a recent national analysis by the Brookings Institution. And among low-wage earners, black and Latino workers are overrepresented compared with their share of the total workforce.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Lawrence, who wears protective gear during her entire shift, disinfects everything when she enters the two-bedroom apartment and as she works. After she leaves, she says, she does her best to prevent any germs from entering her home. “I take my clothes off and put them in a plastic bag before I enter my house.”


Jose Solorio says he will continue to work as long as he can. Like his co-workers, he is the main provider for his family. “It’s in God’s hands,” he says about the threat of getting sick.


Tony Serrato, 34, is a cook at Pie ’n Burger in Pasadena, where takeout orders keep him busy. His hours were cut when the stay-at-home order went into effect, and he now works 20 hours a week, down from 40. “It’s not enough, but it’s something,” he says.


Serrato prepares a burger Thursday. Pie ’n Burger employs just two workers per shift under the new coronavirus rules: one cook and one person answering the phones. Owner Michael Osborn says the restaurant is doing only about one-third of its regular business and is producing about 120 burgers a day. Osborn had to cut 25 employees when restaurants were ordered closed except for takeout or pickup service. He describes it as the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.


Rojas is part of a three-man crew. “We’ve told each other that if we feel sick, we’ll stay home,” he says. The mechanics don’t wear masks and only sometimes wear gloves, but Rojas says they wipe down high-touch parts of each car when it arrives at the shop, with a focus on the steering wheel.


Garrido checks out a customer. Sales have fallen 70% since the stay-at-home orders went into effect, says owner Sarb Derzakarian. With only about 25 customers a day, he says, he doesn’t know how long he can keep the store open.


Tommie Ramirez, 29, is a “budtender” at The Pottery, a cannabis dispensary in the Mid-City neighborhood in central Los Angeles. Ramirez wears gloves at work and practices social distancing but worries about bringing the virus home to her elderly parents.


Ramirez grabs a cannabis tincture for a customer. The dispensary has taken precautions to keep employees and customers safe, including placing signs around the shop.

Header Photo: Pauline Lawrence is a home health aide for a 97-year-old man who depends on her. (HEIDI DE MARCO/KHN)


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