What It’s Like Being a Teenage Essential Worker

Thirty six hours. All spent within the walls of Blaze Pizza, a job which I previously considered ’part-time’. It all changed so quickly that I can barely remember what things were like before the virus. I went from working with 20 other people to being the sole team member on certain days. Thirty-two coworkers suddenly turned into five. Eleven thirty closings have now been moved to eight. Wrap-around lines have been replaced by barricades of chairs and hospitality is all but forgotten. 

‘Welcome to Blaze Pizza!’ has become ‘You have to order online.’

‘How are you today?’ is now ‘Who are you picking up for?’

Coupon slips have been replaced by contactless delivery stickers and ‘no seating area’ diagrams have taken the place of special event posters.

Sadly, this feels all too much like the enjoyment has been taken out of my employment. Before all this occurred, I looked forward to greeting our regulars and cracking jokes while folding take-out boxes with my coworkers. I miss complaining about the family-friendly music and judging the combinations of toppings on the online orders we received. Taking videos in the break room and sneaking garlic knots to the back is what made the job more than just a way to make money. I was working, of course, but the income just felt like an added bonus, secondary to the bonds I developed and the moments we shared as teenage employees. 

Now, I’m lucky if I manage to just stay hydrated through my eight hour shifts. The flow of online orders just never stops. My boss has even started making the joke “I hear that noise in my dreams!” whenever a new order comes in. Although the work is exhausting, college is ridiculously expensive so every paycheck counts, especially with the fall semester looming. I also genuinely enjoy spending time at work. It gives me a sense of purpose. Going to work tricks my brain into thinking I still have a routine to follow. Without it, I think I’d quite literally have torn my room apart by now.

I have to admit, when this all started, there were various concerns about the corporation’s ability to manage new quarantine regulations. For instance, we were provided masks only after a customer emailed headquarters and complained. It took them a couple of weeks to instate a mask policy within our building as well. 

Now, however, they’re definitely handling the situation appropriately. We can’t continue working if there’s more than ten people inside the building, including ourselves. Everyone who enters the restaurant must have a mask and we no longer take in store orders. Truthfully, with regards to employee treatment, my job could not have been more accommodating throughout all of this. We get free meals during our breaks and they understand if we have to take a phone call or answer a message during our shifts. Times have changed and, although it took them a while, corporate has managed to change along with them.

I’m extremely grateful to still be employed as well. Some of my close friends have even started to get jobs, which, I have to admit, sounded crazy to me when I first found out. Out of all times, getting your first job during a pandemic is not the way anyone wants to grow up. Some just don’t have the option of not doing it. Whether it be because their parents were laid off or they simply just need some time to themselves, I applaud and admire the teens that are working through this quarantine. 

As a teenage essential worker myself, I can say that, for me, the scariest part of this entire experience has been the unknown aspect of it. Getting my schedule a day before the week begins. Having work on the same days as my AP exams. Getting home from closing the store to find out my teacher hosted an impromptu zoom review while I was away. Quite frankly, we’re all figuring this out as it goes, so not a soul knows what to expect. These are historic moments and every other tweet I read says ‘you’re living history!’, but I think I speak for myself and the teens of the world when I say, I’m tired of living history. Any story I can ‘tell my grandchildren about’ is not worth missing my graduation, prom, and senior trip for.

If this experience has taught me anything, it’s the importance of putting problems into perspective. For example, while I lamented the end of my lunch break, our district manager was out getting tested for COVID-19. She had come into work showing minor symptoms and was eventually advised to get tested. Despite her chills and inability to smell or taste anything, she was denied a test simply because she didn’t have a fever. Just another testament to the lack of testing accessibility within this country.

As I stressed over distance learning, my coworker’s father-in-law was being admitted to the hospital. Luckily, both him and my district manager have recovered since then. I constantly worry about not being able to maintain my gym schedule during quarantine. Meanwhile, my aunt is counting down the days until her next unemployment check.

Now, this is not to say that we should start comparing problems. Quite the opposite. All of our struggles, at this time, are valid and worthy of recognition. However, as a society, I believe that now is an amazing time to strengthen our empathy towards others. While my problems may seem like the end of the world right now, others are quite literally going through the end of their worlds. 

There are local business owners going into debt to pay their rent. There are children unable to leave abusive households. There are homeless mothers being evicted from their shelters. There are senior care centers closing down. No matter how bad my situation is, there is someone out there who has it worse, which makes it even more important to stay inside, so that this is all over as soon as possible. If not for you, then for others.

Right now, public safety is rightfully a main priority for everyone, which means that some problems just have to matter more than others at the moment. Thankfully, in response, many celebrities are using their platforms to raise resources and offer messages of hope throughout these trying times. 

Although I’m not personally able to donate substantial funds to relief efforts, I am doing what I can in my everyday life. By going into work, I’m helping to feed anyone who may or may not have access to affordable food otherwise. By wearing a mask in public, I’m preventing the spread of COVID-19. Every little bit helps and that is something that matters. It’s reminders like these that have been an integral part of me staying sane during this quarantine. Once I recognized these small yet significant actions, I began to see quarantine through a different lense.

For instance, although it is unfortunate that we can’t assist our guests directly anymore, there are humbling moments of humanity that I observe each time I clock in. 

‘Enjoy your pizza’ is now immediately followed by a genuine plea to ‘Stay safe.’

The Q88 stop outside our store window provides free rides, granted you have a face mask.

Just yesterday, my coworker helped a gentleman find his way to the nearest bank. He didn’t have a face mask and he wasn’t able to take the bus, so she searched up his destination and told him which route to take. She did all this while they stood on opposite ends of our dining room. 

The day before that an older woman walked in and claimed to have a ‘problem’ with her delivery order. My boss, on the sixth hour of her eight hour shift, immediately got defensive and shot back an irritated ‘Okay, what was it?’. The woman explained that she had ordered one pizza, but had received two. She had come back to pay for the extra pizza. 

While watching this, I realized that, through these times, there still exist genuinely caring people out there. The type of people that try to pay for a free pizza. 

It’s through these interactions that I maintain hope. Hope that the quarantine won’t last forever. Hope that some hint of normalcy will start to sneak its way back into our lives after all this is done. Hope that I’ll start my freshman year of college on a physical campus and not through a screen. Hope that, when this is over, people like that woman still exist to spread their kindness.

Lastly, to everyone on the front and backlines of the medical field, thank you. Every artist who’s donated to COVID-19 efforts. To grocery store workers and delivery drivers. To the teachers meeting virtually and parents who have become teachers. Sanitation workers, essential food businesses, MTA bus drivers, and to everyone doing their part and staying home. I thank you. May we all stay hopeful and, most of all, safe.