Being an essential worker made me feel anything but important

A student describes her experience working as a cashier at a bakery while struggling to enforce public health precautions.


At the ripe age of 18, I became an essential worker. My crucial job was to help provide pastries, bread and cakes to the people of New Jersey throughout the pandemic.

I became a cashier at a local bakery one year earlier. Upon entering the store, the first thing I noticed were portraits of various Roman Catholic popes. I quickly learned my boss treated the saying “the customer is always right” as if it were one of the Ten Commandments. 

In February, all the news I received about the COVID-19 pandemic came directly from my boss or from the small television inside the bakery. For weeks leading up to the first COVID-19 case in the United States, he ridiculed those who feared it and often labeled the pandemic as “the Democrats’ favorite hoax.” 

The stories I had heard on the news seemed impossible. While I didn’t think it was a hoax, I couldn’t believe so many people were going to die.

When my boss told me my high school closed and I would be having a three-week spring break, I was thrilled. My school was the first in state to close due to an active case of COVID-19, and I had no idea which one of my classmates had it or if I had come in contact with them. 

While I was somewhat worried that I could spread the virus to someone without realizing it, I wasn’t bothered by having to come into work and put myself in contact with other people at the time. All I could think about was how online school until noon sounded so much easier than in-person classes until 3 o’clock. 

Just to be safe, I asked my boss if he was sure he wanted my coworker, who also went to my high school, and me to come in for our shifts the next day. 

He laughed and said, “You’re kidding right? Of course you’re coming in tomorrow. It’s a hoax. You’re a smart girl, don’t fall for this.” 

I wasn’t surprised by his answer. Still, I questioned whether he would choose to close the bakery to prepare the store or if he would decide to close permanently for the remainder of the pandemic.

When my boss left the room, his wife looked at me with concern. 

“Julia, listen to me. Do not go anywhere tomorrow,” she warned me. “You go home tonight, and you come back here tomorrow. That’s it, only here and home, nowhere else.” 

She understood that the virus could be serious, and I did exactly what she said. For weeks, I never left the house unless I was going to work. The urgency in her voice scared me. I became determined to stay indoors, with the exception of going to my job, because of my own fears of unknowingly spreading the virus.    

I don’t remember the first time I wore a mask to work, but I do remember seeing my older coworkers, who were at risk for COVID-19-related complications, not wearing masks. Nobody in the back of the store was wearing a mask, only myself and a few of my coworkers at the front end. 

This shocked and enraged me. Although my family didn’t wear masks when friends and other family members came over, we always followed the guidelines set forth by public health experts. Starting in late May, we would often place groups of chairs six to eight feet apart from one another and we never let anyone outside of our household come inside.   

Outside the bakery’s front door was a simple sign that read, “Remember to wear your mask please!” But this was barely enforced. Unsurprisingly, many customers ignored our sign. I was frustrated by the lack of consideration for myself and my coworkers, but I was even more irritated by the many customers who refused to wear masks and social distance. 

It seemed as though people were willing to risk the lives of their neighbors and friends to get fresh pastries.

My boss didn’t impose limits on how many people could be allowed inside at a time. The bakery is quite small, and it could only fit 20 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder before the pandemic. 

It wasn’t until April that we got a plexiglass divider between the cashiers and customers at the bakery. Although this precaution was appreciated, we still had no barrier separating us from customers while we were getting loaves of bread, cakes or pastries from the front of the store where customers waited in line.

It was horrifying to see customers blatantly ignoring social distancing within the store. It seemed as though people were willing to risk the lives of their neighbors and friends to get fresh pastries.   

I was not willing to take this risk, though. 

My coworkers and I decided to make our own rules and impose them.

Putting on our best customer service voice, we politely asked customers to wear masks or refrain from coming inside without one. We set our own rules for how many people could come in at once, capping it at five people.

Around me, most of my friends no longer had jobs, as they were not deemed essential. Those who still had jobs told me about daily temperature checks and weekly tests, something that would never happen at the bakery. Others told me about how they had taken time off of their jobs because their parents wanted them to stay home. I envied my friends for having considerate managers who were taking the virus seriously. 

Although I was called an essential worker, the lack of personal protective equipment made me feel completely unimportant. It became very clear to me that if I became sick, I would immediately be replaced without a second thought. 

After tensions in the bakery between my boss and the employees reached its tipping point, he gave us two options: follow his rules or find a new job. Despite his demands, I ignored him. Ultimately, it cost me my job, but I’d rather lose my job than my health. 

Being an essential worker at a young age gave me a newfound tenacity. The experience of working throughout the pandemic enabled me to be more motivated in abiding by precautions to protect those around me.  

The COVID-19 pandemic gave me a new perspective on the importance of our essential workers, but it also taught me to prioritize my health before anything else. 

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