Colorado service workers face health risks, high stress as COVID-19 cases spike

‘Why is my job worth risking my life for?’

A memorial to King Soopers workers who died of COVID-19 appeared outside the King Soopers grocery store at 1155 E. Ninth Avenue in Denver, as seen on July 2, 2020. Workers who died included Karen Haws, Randy Narvaez and James McKay. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Gov. Jared Polis arrived at a virtual press briefing on the state’s coronavirus response on Monday with more bad news about the alarming spikes in cases and hospitalizations that have hit Colorado and much of the rest of the country in recent weeks.

But despite another round of stern warnings about the need to improve social-distancing rates, Polis announced few policy changes, opting instead to extend a statewide mask-wearing order by another 30 days and announce that many state employees would once again transition to working from home. He encouraged private sector employers to “follow suit for the next month or two,” and urged all Coloradans to cut down on the number of people they interact with on a daily basis.

“We have the tools to fight this virus, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you,” Polis said. “No matter what your state or local government has or hasn’t put in place, each and every one of us has a responsibility to do our part to protect ourselves and protect those around us.”

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For hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who work in restaurants, retail, grocery stores and other service industries, however, telecommuting isn’t an option. It’s not up to them how many people they’re in close contact with every day, or how many hours they spend in indoor spaces where the risk of infection is highest. With the virus now more prevalent than ever, and case counts showing no signs of slowing, that risk is becoming higher every day.

These frontline workers say they’re stressed and anxious as they worry about what comes next: if they’ll catch COVID-19, if they’ll spread it to a family member, if lockdowns or outbreaks will close their workplace again and whether they’ll be able to get unemployment or other benefits if that happens. And many are growing angry over what they feel is a lack of decisive action and support from state and federal policymakers.

“It’s just so frustrating,” said Isis Usborne, who works at a Denver burger joint. “I’m so confused about, am I an essential worker or not? Why is my job worth risking my life for?”

“I’ve had lots of friends quit their jobs as servers and bartenders because they’re not willing to risk their lives,” Usborne added. “I’ve had other friends who continued to work and have gotten COVID, because they have to be at work. They have to be earning money, there’s no other way around it. It’s not like we get the luxury of just staying home.”

Newsline spoke with nearly a dozen workers in Colorado’s service sector who face little choice but to continue working as the coronavirus pandemic enters what many scientists predict could be its most dangerous phase yet. Most requested anonymity, or to be identified only by their first names, out of fear of retaliation.

Bars in areas of the state with low COVID-19 transmission can now serve alcohol until midnight. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Experts place much of the blame for the recent surge in cases on indoor, high-volume gathering places like bars, restaurants and private parties. Colorado officials have sought to address these risks with new measures like the “Home by 10” order issued by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock last week, which prohibits alcohol sales and in-person dining after 10 p.m. But they’ve publicly resisted another round of shutdown measures, expressing confidence that behavioral changes and protective measures will be enough to get the spread under control.

Restaurant workers are far less certain. Mask-wearing, social distancing, plexiglass barriers and other measures can mitigate the risk of infection, but not eliminate it. The food service industry involves stressful, fast-paced work environments even in the best of times, and with many establishments understaffed and just trying to scrape by, precautionary measures can easily get overlooked. One server at a restaurant in downtown Denver noted that despite rules limiting party sizes to eight people, larger groups often make separate reservations and then mingle together.

And despite weeks of increasingly urgent messages from Polis and Hancock urging people to voluntarily change their behavior, restaurant workers say that they can see first-hand that little has changed.

“That is not trickling down to the people that the statistics say are spreading it the most,” said Anna, who works as a bartender at a Denver restaurant. “It definitely doesn’t seem like just pleading with people not to do something that is pretty commonplace in your 20s and 30s, spending time with your social group — saying ‘please don’t do that’ isn’t doing it.”

“I’m working in the service industry in a pandemic with no health insurance … It’s kind of terrifying.” Anna, a Denver bartender

Health risks and high stress

For most workers in the service industry, the economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating, and the effects of widespread shutdown orders still linger. Many have lost income and savings, struggled to get unemployment benefits and fallen behind on rent. Anna lost her previous job in the spring — and with it, her health coverage.

“I’m working in the service industry in a pandemic with no health insurance,” she said. “It’s kind of terrifying.”

Across Colorado, nearly 1,200 people are currently hospitalized with a confirmed case of COVID-19, exceeding the state’s previous peak in April, according to the latest data compiled by public health officials. In a briefing on Nov. 5, state epidemiologists said that their modeling showed that one out of every 100 people in the Denver metro area is currently contagious with the virus.

COVID-19 hospitalizations
This chart from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows the number of people hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and cases under investigation. (CDPHE)

For many people in the service sector, a typical workday involves serving well over a hundred customers — meaning that, statistically, they’re encountering at least one contagious person in an average shift.

That’s especially true at many workplaces where employees feel like they’re stretched too thin. Though Colorado’s unemployment rate has fallen since peaking in April, it’s still well above pre-pandemic levels, with many lower-wage jobs in the service sector hit hardest. Businesses that remain open are often making do with minimal staff.

“Everything is a lot more hectic,” said one employee at a Denver-area cannabis dispensary. “We do a lot of sales. It almost gets kind of blurry to a point, where you’re just churning out customers left and right, trying to get them in and out, even though you don’t want these people in front of you at all.”

In addition to the risks to physical health that COVID-19 poses, the mental and emotional toll of working through the pandemic can be significant. Several workers interviewed by Newsline said that throughout most of 2020, they’ve often felt as much like a therapist as a service employee, trying to do their jobs while also offering emotional support to customers who may be struggling, isolated or on-edge.

“Everyone is stressed out,” said the dispensary employee. “Sometimes we’re the only people that these customers talk to during the day. They don’t see anyone else. They come in, they buy their weed and they go home.”

“It’s just a stressful time all around,” said Elizabeth, who works as a hairstylist in a Denver-area salon. “So much is happening in everybody’s personal lives, and I get to hear about it. Everyone’s in crisis mode. Everybody’s just trying to keep it together.”

‘The government can do a lot’

Ali Mohammad, who works as a baggage handler at Denver International Airport, generally feels safe at work, where he says there’s effective social-distancing measures and plenty of personal protective equipment. But he’s worried about what kind of sick-leave benefits he’d receive if he catches the virus or has to self-quarantine — and about the possibility of having to go back on unemployment if things continue to get worse. He was only called back to work in October, after a six-month furlough caused by the sharp drop-off in air travel in April.

“I don’t want to go through that again,” Mohammad said. “But if we are forced to shut down, and there are no flights, and the airport closes, the government can do a lot. They can delay the rent with a rent moratorium. They can (pass) a stimulus package.”

COVID-19 testing site
COVID Check Colorado operates a testing center at Colorado School of Mines in Golden. (Courtesy of Colorado School of Mines)

As with any other large group of Coloradans, opinions are split among workers in the restaurant and retail sectors about the potential impacts of another wide-scale shutdown. Familiar debates weighing health risks against economic concerns rage in Facebook groups for service-industry workers. Every few days, it seems, rumors about an imminent lockdown spread rapidly.

But with the virus becoming so prevalent, a growing number of businesses find themselves having to shut down due to outbreaks and staff shortages, anyway. Even critical services like hospitals and testing sites are struggling to remain adequately staffed.

“My coworkers are starting to drop like flies this week,” said the dispensary employee. One worker at a Denver grocery store said that his location had been “lucky” over the last few months to only have to close and sanitize the store four times due to a positive test by an employee; a competing store nearby has had 12 such closures, according to what he’s heard.

Despite intense anxiety over the layoffs, lost wages and other hardships that another stay-at-home order would likely bring, several service workers said that such a decision would at least provide “relief” from the agonizing uncertainty they now face. If the spread of the virus continues on its current trajectory, and state and local officials don’t act, many people whose lives and livelihoods are on the line will have to make these difficult decisions on their own.

“I’m getting to the point now where it’s starting to be a real concern — when do I call it for myself?” said Elizabeth. “When do I stop going to work, (as) a personal, moral choice?”

“I’m at a loss,” Usborne said. “I feel like there’s not any kind of support from our government. I feel like they’re just hoping that more of us die, so that they don’t have to worry about us. And then they’re going to be real upset when they realize that means we can’t make their burgers.”