I am living in an alternate reality.
I wish I could stay home and stay safe. I see the signs everywhere. I get the emails and read the postings on Facebook. Stay home and stay safe.
I work for a protected employer, which makes me an essential employee. I am not a firefighter, a nurse, an EMT. I work in a manufacturing plant with military contracts.
Am I grateful for the job? Absolutely. As a mature woman, divorced without alimony, I am proud of the fact that I put myself through tech school to land this job. I have a co-worker who said, “You bounced back, HARD.” I take this as a compliment. Yes, I did not stay in a friend’s basement lamenting my losses. I embraced change. I stayed flexible and open. I proved to be strong and resilient.
At the end of March when everyone else was ordered to stay home for 2 weeks, the plant manager walked through and asked for questions.
“What the hell are we doing here?” I volunteered.
Why couldn’t we follow the example provided by GM and Ford? He told me they don’t have back-orders like we do. We also supply the military and they do not. I thought then, what I think now, we are in a lot of trouble if our military does not have 2 weeks worth of parts in storage. Bigger trouble than a virus.
It was suggested we wash our hands. My colleague announced he does not do this and believes in herd immunity. We share a desk, computer, microwave and refrigerator within 10 square feet for an 8-hour shift. I requested alcohol to wipe our equipment. My supervisor got me some, but could not confirm its potency. Weeks later, we were given a solution of hydrogen peroxide to clean our areas.
About 2 weeks ago, the company started sending in additional cleaning crews, people who did not speak English. They walk through, wearing gloves, wiping handles here and there. I went to Environmental Health & Safety and asked if they had been screened for the virus, otherwise we were just being exposed to more people at a time when we were told to do the opposite. No, they had not been screened or trained.
They appear at random throughout the day.
Then, workers began getting sick. In March, we were notified of colleagues testing positive for COVID. One of my colleagues took the two weeks of paid leave when his roommate returned home with symptoms after a stint abroad. The company offers 2 weeks of additional paid time off for anyone who wants to take it. What if I become ill and need it later? Its a difficult decision.
Another man in the plant has been on a ventilator for 15 days from COVID. He worked in an area I pass through. He has relatives in the plant who do not wear masks.
About two weeks ago, an email came through suggesting masks might be a good idea, but they are voluntary. A dear friend in Michigan sewed and sent me four. I wear them. Yesterday, my supervisor gave me what looks like a surgical mask and I can get a new one from him every shift.
Yesterday, the company announced the death of a woman who worked in the plant. The area has been cleaned and colleagues notified, they explained. Rumors run rampant. She was 38 years old and had been in two different buildings, supposedly.
Thermal screening is coming in a few days, the company reports. Which is coming quicker? The virus or screening? I wonder.
Showing up is tough.
We now have an hour between first and second shift for cleaning crews to come through. Walking in 15 minutes early, I have yet to see signs of any cleaning.
One of the first shift supervisors admitted to having a little anxiety and crying before coming in. She thanked us for showing.
“What else can we do?” I asked. For those of us with no other source of income, is there a choice? By the way, you are supposed to be our leader, I wanted to say. Her youth makes it clear. She is looking to us to show her the way forward.
In this time, no one really knows. We all struggle with fear.
In previous times, I would stop at the grocery store at 11:30 p.m. after my shift. There might be six other people in the store. Now, I have to meet the masses in order to get basic supplies.
I wear a mask. I know I have been exposed. I work with people who are obese, who are over 70. I read the statistics. What I cannot understand is the managers who say we care about your health, but are not wearing a mask in the plant. Only one wears a homemade job.
Monday through Friday, I get in my car with my dinner and water bottle and drive to work. It is not easy. It is hard and getting harder. This week the company announced furloughs are pending. Any residual enthusiasm for the job was plucked from under all of us at that point. Fear pervades.
None of the eight men I work with don a mask. They are full of quips about mine. I remind them of their dental hygienist. When will the cleaning start? I have learned a number of come-backs for people who tease me.
“What?! Can’t you read my lips?”
“Someone will have to send you a card when you are in the hospital.”
But it feels difficult to even laugh.
I look back on what I have faced. The moves I have made across the country, to Texas, to Minnesota. The work I did on the pipeline, not a friendly place for women. The court battle which proved nothing but a sham for justice. Fear of poverty, of the unknown. It has been in these trying times that I have realized my strength, my faith, but most importantly, just the ability to move forward in what feels like the hardest thing yet.
Courage, does not mean you are not afraid. It means you move forward despite feeling fear. I try to be courageous. It ain’t easy.
I realize that I have never followed the pack. That probably makes it easier for me to wear a mask. To keep looking out and up. Not back.
I am not going there.
Go with me on this journey of Something Hard. We will come out the Other Side.