Claudia’s glasses often fog up above her mask during the hours she spends kneeling over blueberry bushes at the farm she works at in Marion County. She shakes them clean to avoid contaminating them with the pesticides that get on her clothes.
But she never removes her mask during her long work days.
She has diabetes and asthma and worries about what would happen if she contracted COVID-19, or brought the virus home to her husband and 11- and 9-year-old daughters. Even with the mask, the 40-year-old fears she could ultimately be exposed to the virus because she says she has to share a rarely sanitized porta-potty and washing station with other workers.
Yet she has continued to work through the pandemic, and even through the wildfires last September, when she found herself coughing up ash in the fields. She ran through her savings when she lost her job at a cannery due to the pandemic last March and was out of work for two months. If she misses a work day now, she said she won’t be able to pay her bills.
“I’m happy to have a job and have a wage and be able to cover my expenses, but I don’t like risking my health or my family’s health,” she said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “That’s something that weighs on me.”
Claudia, an immigrant who asked that her last name not be published, is one of the thousands of Oregon workers whose lives changed dramatically a year ago when the severity of the coronavirus pandemic came into focus.
Tuesday marks one year since Gov. Kate Brown issued a stay-home order that shut many stores and offices while requiring strict safety precautions in other businesses.
Since then, Oregon has faced the most dramatic economic downturn in state history and among the most profound shifts ever in the way people work. From the state’s farms to its factories, from its restaurants to grocery stores, the pandemic has changed the lives of Oregon’s workforce and exposed stark economic disparities.
For some, the vaccine rollout offers hope for the year ahead: A chance for industries to be revived, a sense of safety in the workplace to be restored and finally a return to normalcy. But that still feels distant to many. Farmworkers will become eligible to receive vaccines at the end of March, but many other frontline workers won’t be eligible until mid-April under Oregon’s current timeline.
“The pandemic has been strange because it’s been this massive collective experience,” said Michael Hartig, a TriMet bus driver. “But the effects of it have been very unevenly distributed.”
Nearly 260,000 Oregonians lost their jobs as the state’s jobless rate soared above 13% in the first month of the pandemic, worse than at any point during the Great Recession. The Oregon Employment Department’s antiquated computer system proved wholly incapable of handling a flood of new claims as tens of thousands of unemployed workers went months without receiving payments.
ONE YEAR SINCE OREGON’S STAY HOME ORDER
A year into the pandemic, Oregon’s unemployment rate still hovers at 6.1%. Thousands are approaching one year without employment, and many remain unsure of when, or if, their industries will return.
Others have retained their jobs but haven’t had the luxury of working from home. Frontline workers, many of whom are women and minorities in low-wage jobs, have been asked to risk their own safety by continuing to go to work.
Over the last year, more than 19,000 Oregonians have contracted COVID-19 in the workplace and nearly 100 have died, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The largest outbreaks have occurred at prisons, food processing facilities and farms.
Hartig developed a grim fatalism in the early weeks of the pandemic, convinced he would contract COVID-19 while driving his bus route. He hasn’t, but he also hasn’t been able to shake that fear, especially as TriMet has increased capacity on its buses.
Still, the 37-year-old has felt a sense of duty providing transportation to vulnerable individuals and other essential workers during a pandemic. He has had elderly passengers take the time to thank him when they step onboard his bus. Those moments have helped carry him through the last year.
But Hartig has also had passengers grow angry when he has asked them to wear masks. One passenger screamed obscenities at him and got so close to his face as he screamed that Hartig could feel the passenger’s spit land on his cheek.
“When it’s bad, it’s really bad,” he said. “Then, you have the long-term chronic stress of feeling constantly exposed to the risk of infection. That has really taken a toll. At the same time, I feel really grateful to still be employed throughout this whole thing.”
A year into the pandemic, Melody Gramley also is still anxious about being exposed to the virus working for a Salem grocery chain.
Before the pandemic, the 57-year-old used to travel from store to store in a sales role, but she has been working on the floor more often since the pandemic started.
Early on, when it was still unclear whether the virus could be easily transmitted through surfaces, Gramley would immediately throw her clothes in the washer and take a shower when she came home from working out of fear that she could expose her husband and 24-year-old daughter. She also stopped seeing her 11-year-old grandson, who is immunocompromised.
“In the beginning, I was really stressed out,” Gramley said. “I had other employees coming to me and asking, ‘How are we supposed to handle this?’ I had to push through it, just like everyone else. If you have bills you have to pay, you have to do it.”
Over time, Gramley has adjusted to a new routine. She puts on two masks before work each day, wears rubber gloves during her shifts and sanitizes her work area as often as possible. As coronavirus cases have fallen within the state, she has felt safer spending limited time with her grandson.
But she recently had to work in a store where she said five employees had tested positive for COVID-19. On another occasion, a customer informed her that they had been exposed to the virus but had decided to shop at the store anyway. That incident served as a stark reminder of the risk she is taking each day at work.
Gramley said she feels particularly frustrated by Gov. Brown’s decision not to prioritize grocery store workers in the early phase of the state’s vaccine rollout. Hartig, too, believes bus drivers should have access to the vaccine sooner.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that essential workers be included among the first groups to receive the vaccine, many of those workers won’t be eligible to get vaccinated until April 19 under Oregon’s current guidelines. In contrast, grocery workers, public transit employees and other frontline workers in Washington became eligible for vaccines Wednesday.
“There are a lot of strong retail workers out there,” Gramley said. “They somehow find the strength to get up every morning and do their jobs, even though they are exhausted. It’s not easy, especially when you are told you are essential, and then told you have to wait to get the vaccine.”
A YEAR WITHOUT WORK
Yanying Chen took a job as a waitress at Wong’s King Seafood in 2012, the year she and her husband emigrated to the United States. She held that job until last March when Oregon temporarily halted onsite dining, prompting the dim sum restaurant to lay off its staff.
Two months later, Chen, 40, received a letter from the restaurant informing her it was closing for good.
Since then, she has applied for numerous jobs, but nothing has panned out. The restaurant industry has been particularly hard hit by revolving restrictions that have limited onsite dining to various degrees throughout the pandemic.
In Chen’s case, securing a job has been particularly difficult because she has to stay home during the day to help her two children with distance learning while her husband continues to work as a self-employed handyman. She only speaks a little English, further limiting her employment options.
Many of her former colleagues at Wong’s King struggled to overcome language barriers when navigating Oregon’s dysfunctional unemployment benefits system. Chen, though, said her eighth-grade son, Jiayuan, is fluent in English and walked her through the process shortly after she was laid off. She has been receiving jobless benefits since last March, which has enabled her family to continue to pay the mortgage on their house in Happy Valley.
“I still feel stressed and nervous,” she said in Cantonese, through an interpreter. “I don’t know how long things will be like this or what it will look like in the future, but I do really appreciate my family getting unemployment, so we can still meet our basic needs.”
Chen is optimistic that things will change in the year ahead as schools reopen, at least in a modified capacity, which could enable her to finally secure another job. But she remains unsure whether there will be any jobs for her if the restaurant industry doesn’t rebound.
Alexandra Weitzman, who has been the pastry chef at ChefStable Catering for five years, is facing the same uncertainty. While the state has slowly begun to ease restrictions on many businesses, large events are likely to be one of the last to return. Weitzman said she often caters corporate events, something that may not be as appealing to companies if employees continue to work from home after the pandemic.
That reality has been hard to process.
Weitzman remembers the shock she felt when she learned last March that the state was banning large events. Overnight, her life changed completely. She was laid off and, as a single parent, her full-time job became helping her six- and nine-year-old with distance learning.
But she has tried to maintain a positive outlook over the last year, taking time to appreciate the trips to the river and the daily walks she’s been able to take with her children around east Portland during the extra time she has spent at home. She was able to access unemployment benefits quickly last year, and considers herself lucky to have been able to keep up with her bills during the pandemic.
Weitzman has since returned to part-time work helping with the ChefStable Kitchen Collective, the restaurant group’s ghost kitchen concept, but won’t be able to resume full-time work until her children are back in school. She’s optimistic that there will be a job for her at ChefStable at that point, but what that looks like is less certain.
“I always tell people I’ve had the best job. When it shut down, it was shocking,” Weitzman said. “Now, it’s a year later and we still don’t know, is this going to be a thing anymore? There’s really no telling what’s going to happen.”