On the Front Lines: Reality of a Young Essential Worker

On the Front Lines: Reality of a Young Essential Worker

02.18.21
Photo courtesy of Ivan Manriquez
02.18.21

By Leonel Loera

When the pandemic hit, getting a job as an essential worker was a risk Ivan Manriquez knew he had to take. For the teen, who works part-time at a Fresno grocery store, the job is a way to contribute to the family bills while trying to save for the future.

“I honestly do owe it to my mom to cover all of this for her because of everything she’s sacrificed for me over the years,” Manriquez said. “I’m 19. I don’t want to have to ask her for money.”

He uses his check to contribute to the rent, pay car insurance, gas, phone service and save for college. With his older brother moving out, Manriquez knew he would need to help pick up the slack financially.

Manriquez is one of the thousands of teenagers and young adults across California who are on the front lines working at grocery stores, fast food restaurants and big-box retailers. The work is demanding, but there’s also the worry that the job puts them at greater risk of contracting the virus.

In California, many of the essential workers are youth of color. According to the most recent data from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, 47% of essential workers are between the ages of 18-24. Latinx workers have the highest rate of employment in these jobs at 55% followed by Black workers (48%), workers of other races (38%) and Asian workers (37%).

“I thought it was funny because just less than a year ago, people would just call this unskilled labor, and now it’s essential work,” Manriquez said.

“I think it really hit me when Beyoncé did a video thanking all essential workers, and I was like, ‘She shouted me out.’ But I was also wondering at the time, now that this pandemic is shaking the table, what is the pay going to look like?”

At the grocery store where Manriquez works, the safety policy allows two weeks of time off for employees who have symptoms related to the virus. According to Manriquez, employees are getting sick faster, causing stress to the few still clocking in.

“A lot of people are taking two weeks, which forces a lot of us to pick up more slack,” Manriquez said.

Fever checks are also enforced, and results are not being disclosed to staff, he said. And this causes worry that some employees might come to work sick.

“Me being me, I’m going to question everything. What if people have high temperatures, but they don’t want to send them home? They want to maximize profit; they don’t want to send these employees on time off,” he said.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns Manriquez has faced during these times is the potential of paid time off not being honored should he get sick or contract the virus.

“It makes me kind of nervous because God forbid, I develop these symptoms and have to call in for my two weeks,” he said. “It’s affecting me and my comfort working and also my strictness with customers wearing masks. That’s scary to me.”

According to the State of California Department of Industrial Relations, workers who experience symptoms of COVID-19 should quarantine at home for 14 days. Employers are required to provide supplemental paid sick leave under executive order N-51-20.

Being an essential worker isn’t easy, especially when customers act rude. Manriquez said there was a time when a customer whistled at him like you would do to grab a dog’s attention.

“That’s one thing I do not like,” Manriquez said. “That stems from their ignorance. That’ll always be a challenge for me, dealing with customers when my patience is at a low. But also, I have to find the inner strength not to be so passive-aggressive. I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to help out my mom by working and to be a solid employee.”

Still, Manriquez smiles and recounts the silver lining of the situation: not all customers are bad.

“I’ll be honest; there are some really genuine customers who have the energy to help us help them in any way that they can,” he said.

Often essential workers consider whether they should work to make money or stay safe and healthy. In some cases, it’s not even a debate.

“If it had to be a battle, work would win because I do have to help my mom,” he said. “I do have to save up for college. As much as I don’t want to work right now, I have to. One, to make money, (and) two, for the experience. Building a resume is important to me.”

This story was produced by The kNOw and is part of a collaborative project “Behind Our Masks” that includes content from young journalists from YR Media, Boyle Heights BeatThe kNOw and Coachella Unincorporated.

From education, to family, to employment, the pandemic has deeply impacted the younger generation, particularly young people of color.  Click here for more stories on how they’re trying to cope.