The COVID-19 outbreak has forced businesses across the globe to temporarily close their doors. But grocery stores, pharmacies, and other establishments deemed essential were able to remain operating. At the same time, school shutdowns have confined many teens to their homes. Some teens have decided to work at these essential businesses, choosing to face some health risk in order to cure boredom, secure an income or simply enjoy some social interaction.
Kyle Austin, 19, a Sammamish resident and Bellevue College freshman, has been employed at Safeway since November. Working at an essential business like Safeway is practically being on the frontlines of the pandemic. Like many other grocers, Safeway underwent changes to adapt and promote employee health and safety. Austin and his fellow coworkers have been supplied with masks and gloves. They regularly sanitize carts and check out areas.
But when a co-worker was diagnosed with a fever in mid-March, gloves and masks did not seem like enough of a precaution for Austin.
“I took a leave of absence for two weeks to stay safe for my family, but it ended up turning into six weeks,” Austin said. “I was waiting until the cases and deaths started to decrease.”
When he came back at the end of April, around 20 new employees had been hired. At least two new people were added in every department. The majority of the courtesy workers were between the ages of 16 and 19. With more workers came cuts in hours and shifts.
For Austin, though, going back to work provided personal interaction not available while stuck at home.
“Getting to interact with people, and making them smile by telling jokes,” Austin said, when asked on why he went back.
Recent Eastlake High School graduate Evan Yoneyama, 18, had been working at Discount Tire in Redmond for eight months before they were forced to close for two weeks in late March. When the shop reopened with new safety and health procedures in place, only 12 technicians could work there at a time. Since business was slower than usual, Discount Tire chose to reduce the number of hours for each employee, rather than let people go.
“While I’m not going out and spending money I might as well make some and save it,” Yoneyama said.
Eastlake High School junior Emily Balt, 17, was just thankful to be around her co-workers at Pagliacci Pizza, rather than being isolated at home. The restaurant was open for delivery throughout the state’s stay-at-home order, but hours were cut, and no new employees were hired. Balt said her desire for social interaction outweighed her perceived risk of COVID-19 exposure.
“I decided to work because I thought it was important not to let my coworkers down,” she said.
Issaquah High School graduate Stuti Bhardwaj, 18, started working at the Klahanie QFC a week after her school closed in March. Being bored at home, the job provided a way to fill her increased free time. Many other teens had the same idea and in early April, the grocery store hired many more young employees. Like Safeway, workers were required to wear masks, and had to sanitize carts and check out areas. But now Bhardwaj said the store is not as busy and her hours have been cut nearly in half.
“I do like being able to still socialize and talk to people,” she said, after working at QFC for nearly three months.
With King County recently authorized to go to Phase 2 reopening by the state, essential businesses and their workers have seen the community slowly return to what life was like before the pandemic.
“People’s anxiety levels have lessened, and regular shoppers have come back,” Austin, the employee at Safeway, said. “It’s slowly getting back to normal.”