Since March of 2020, millions of American essential workers have labored during a deadly pandemic.
A portion of these workers are Hispanic or Latinx in nationality, and varied as they are, they all face a unique set of challenges in their everyday work. Here’s a look at their challenges, experiences, and lives.
Each of the local essential workers described their working situations as ones that did not experience much of a halt at all. As the globe seemed to be at a momentary stand-still, these people showed up to work everyday and not only lived in fear, but worked in fear. Nancy Suarez
Suarez is housekeeping supervisor at the Baymont by Wyndham hotel in Meriden. Before the pandemic, the hotel had 11 housekeepers. After, she alone worked daily to clean guest rooms. After migrating to the U.S. from Ecuador 14 years ago as a non-English speaker, Suarez was used to adapting. However, nothing could have prepared her for what the COVID-19 pandemic would thrust upon her and millions of others starting in late winter of 2020.
“We did not know — the fear of losing our lives or losing a family member ... but necessity obligated us to work with fear,” she said.
Suarez recounted the initial fear of unknown early in the pandemic, when she would go through a new sanitation routine to bring the least possible amount of germs from work to her family and home. This included leaving her shoes outside and not touching her children until she had showered.
As the pandemic loomed on and millions of Americans were working from home, Suarez was struggling with fear and the effort to keep her family safe as she encountered countless possible contamination sources almost daily at work. A year later, with the national vaccination push and updated state guidelines offering an existence closer to the pre-pandemic lifestyle Americans once knew, Suarez commented on human resilience.
“Slowly we are learning to live with the virus,” she said. Angel and Alec Rentas
Throughout the pandemic, there has been national recognition for health care workers and the sacrifices they’ve made. Not everyone, however, has the privilege of listening to the experiences of these essential workers, let alone two at once.
Angel Rentas and his son, Alec Rentas, detailed their time as health care workers during the pandemic in a joint-interview. Angel Rentas, a cardiology nurse practitioner and a part-time comedian, talked about the impact COVID-19 had on medical professionals. He recalled a co-worker in a COVID-19 unit who shed tears as she described communicating with a patient’s family members at a time when family was not allowed to see their ailing loved ones.
“You’re realizing that it’s not a punch-in and punch-out time.” Rentas said. “It stays with you.”
During the pandemic, Angel Rentas started a podcast called “Healthcare Un-Reformed” with the intention of combining comedy and health care in order to inform the general public on topics of public health and safety. Throughout the pandemic, he has mostly been a “floating” worker — helping out in hospice centers, educating Latinx communities on the vaccine and performing comedy shows via Zoom for a multitude of health care communities.
Alec Rentas has been more stationary. Working as an operating room aid, he cleans operating rooms and transports patients, some of who are afflicted with COVID-19.
“I’ve had to learn a lot in the past few months,” said Alec Rentas, who describes his position as “nerve-wracking” at times, but ended his interview on a positive note mentioning that COVID-19 cases seem to be less frequent.
Despite the challenges of the past year, both men were positive about the impact they have made throughout the pandemic. Danny Diaz
Another essential pillar within our economy that has shifted greatly during the pandemic is the grocery industry. From a national toilet paper hoarding crisis in 2020, known on social media as #toiletpapergate, to completely redesigning store standards, Diaz, store manager of Meriden’s C-Town Supermarket, has navigated his team through many obstacles brought on by COVID-19.
While adapting took some extra time and effort on his part, Diaz found solace in serving the people of the community. Regarding the ethnic range of products offered at C-Town Supermarket, he commented on the emotional aspects of goods that are more than just necessities.
“It’s stuff from their countries that brings them comfort — you know, that sense of being home,” he said.
Diaz explained how he was able to develop and implement a new model for phone-in grocery delivery within the Meriden community in order to cater to those most vulnerable, specifically the elderly. Despite the store never having a history of this service, Diaz ensured that anyone who called in would get their groceries delivered to their door.
“Seeing the customers and seeing them happy is what makes working an essential job during a pandemic worth it,” he said. Katerina Reyes Cyr
Some essential workers started as remote workers and have had to transition back to the workplace. Such is the case for Reyes Cyr, a Watertown High School Spanish teacher. She operates through a hybrid style of teaching, instructing some students in person (while masked) and some online as they learn from home. Her strategy has been to focus on the essentials in order to best prepare her students for success as they approach what she hopes is a non-pandemic 2021-2022 school year.
Reflecting on her year of pandemic teaching, Reyes Cyr said she owed her success to her colleagues and family; while this year has been hard, Reyes Cyr has been able to find solace in the company of her husband, who is also a teacher, and her two dogs.
Despite the difficult year, Reyes Cyr is often reminded why she does the job; in the classroom as she sometimes finds herself struggling, her students bring light and energy that is refreshing and reassuring, she said. Reyes Cyr has set up her space in a way that encourages students to come and unwind with peers. She looks forward to each Friday when a group of students choose to spend their study hall period with her.
“It’s shown me that this year, it’s so important to make these connections with students,” she said. “I’m glad that I’m able to foster an environment where they can get together and just be teenagers.”
As we wearily chug along through what we can only hope is the back end of this crippling pandemic, it is important to reflect on those who have worked tirelessly to keep our communities running. Providing care, education, safe and sanitary environments, and other necessities are just some of the duties essential workers are tasked with, and so often they go above and beyond to serve their communities in the best way they can.