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Health, Science, Environment

Essential Workers In St. Louis Risk Health Serving Others During Coronavirus Pandemic

Ashley Mosley, a Certified Nursing Assistant, advocates for hazard pay for essential workers because of their increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.
David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
Ashley Mosley, a certified nursing assistant, advocates for hazard pay for essential workers because of their increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Christopher Bennett took all of the precautions to protect himself from COVID-19. A cook at a St. Louis- area hospital, he wears a mask and gloves and sanitizes all areas of the kitchen. But he still got sick.

Bennett, who lives in Beverly Hills, Missouri, tested positive for the coronavirus in September. He isn’t sure how he contracted the virus, but as an essential worker whose job requires him to work in public, he knew he was at risk. When he became ill, he thought of his worst fears.

“I didn't want to run across somebody [and] take it to my family, my kids or anybody that I care for,” Bennett said.

Many people in the St. Louis region are trying to help keep the coronavirus from spreading by working from home and avoiding crowds. But Bennett and other workers have no choice but to be out and about. Nursing home workers, bus drivers, child care providers and other essential workers have to interact with the public during the coronavirus pandemic.

After developing pneumonia, Bennett spent two weeks in the hospital. Doctors put him on oxygen and at one point thought he might need a ventilator.

No one else in Bennett’s household had the virus. He’s recovering and is now back to work.

He and others who go to work every day want people to know that they struggle to keep going and worry that they’re putting themselves — and their families — at risk. They also want people to continue wearing masks and practice social distancing.

“These people are dedicating their lives, their family lives, their livelihood, to try and to keep America safe,” Bennett said. “Help the people that's trying to help you because they are human too.”

Although many employers require workers to wear masks and other protective gear, that doesn’t put essential workers at ease. They know they can still contract the virus, and they’ve seen that concern drive some coworkers away.

“We know when we're jeopardizing our families by still coming to be essential workers, because we had a lot of people who quit,” said Ashley Mosley, a cook and certified nursing assistant at Crestwood Health Care Center and Bellefontaine Gardens, both in St. Louis County.

A lot of people quit in the medical field because they were worried about the virus but also because they don’t receive hazard pay, said Mosley, a shop steward for the Service Employees International Union. At one point, she received hazard pay from both jobs. Because of a lack of positive cases, she stopped getting it.

She’s tested for the virus at both jobs each week. With so many people leaving the job, there’s extra stress on her and others who keep working.

Demond Spiller has worked as a MetroBus driver for over 20 years. He typically spends 8 hours a day driving his routes.
David Kovaluk
Demond Spiller has worked as a MetroBus driver for over 20 years. He typically spends 8 hours a day driving his routes.

“Just because we don't have enough staff doesn't mean that the residents can't eat, they have to eat,” said Mosley, of Jennings, Missouri. “If it means staying after a little bit, if it means hustling a little bit more to get to each resident or doing a little bit more work, then that's just what you do.”

The pandemic affects nearly every part of essential workers' lives, and their busy schedules can make it hard to care for their families. Mosley, who has three children, is glad family members can take care of them. But she knows that others don’t have that kind of support.

“You have people that have children that went to day care. The day care shut down, the school shut down. Our kids needed someplace to go. We have to pay people to watch our children,” Mosley said.

The pandemic’s impact on day care workers isn’t lost on Lisa Scheer, director of Baden Christian Child Care Center in north St. Louis. Scheer has worked in child care for more than 20 years. She said this year has been especially difficult for day care workers.

“We have staff that are high risk,” Scheer said. “It's a constant worry for people. You want to be working, you have to be working. Even if you're able to get unemployment at this point, it's terrible, and who can live off of that?”

Many parents are often hesitant to have their children around other kids who may carry the virus while other parents haven’t returned to work. That’s led some parents to keep their kids at home and some day cares to close. Scheer has managed to keep her doors open, but it’s been tough as many day care centers have closed their doors throughout the area.

I don't know what January looks like for us, because we have been able to get the payroll protection loan, we were able to get some city CARES Act funding and grants here or there,” Scheer said. “But all of those things are gone.”

Before the pandemic, the center enrolled about 50 kids and provided transportation. Scheer said the center has stopped picking up kids because of safety concerns, and now about 12 arrive every day.

Demond Spiller, a driver for Metro Transit, also worries about safety. He said the company gives drivers bleach and water to sanitize their seats. MetroBus also has cut the number of buses on the streets in Missouri.

Spiller, of St. Louis, loves being a bus driver but said workers are still at risk.

“You're not out there as much as you used to be,” he said. “You're not out there as long as you used to be. But you're still out there. And I mean, it doesn't take eight hours to get coronavirus.”

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

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