Safe practices for essential employees

This is a photo of four people standing side by side wearing masks.
Illustration by Jessalyn George

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be an incredibly difficult time for all. The world was turned upside down this March—restaurants shut down, clubs closed and your local cafe was all but boarded up. The full lockdown stage, however, didn’t last too long. While some were able to work from home, many people were not afforded that luxury.

Customer service jobs have always been taxing and draining, and working customer service through the pandemic has only added an extra layer of stress for employees. From dealing with customers refusing to wear masks to knowing that they’re putting themselves at risk with every shift, customer service workers have always had to deal with a mentally draining job, but now, it jeopardizes their health and safety. 

With reopening stages in full swing, this means that customer service workers have been put back on the front lines, expected to return to work with a smile (behind their mask), despite the dangers of close contact in the midst of a pandemic. 

Many customer service jobs are occupied by students. Tired students, marginalized students, students trying to balance their school load with their work schedules—students at all intersections. Most importantly, students that didn’t sign up for the situation they’ve been put in. 

Pre-pandemic, customer service workers were looked down upon, yet now, we are constantly thanking them for their service. Their employers call them essential employees yet most have gone without increased pay or hazard pay. For racialized workers, the risks remain as high as ever. Not only did they have to deal with racism and other forms of discrimination on the job prior to the pandemic, but data shows that stress caused by racism and other forms of discrimination impacts risk levels for COVID-19. 

Many customer service and entry-level positions are occupied by racialized people, and data shows that the virus has hit low income neighbourhoods and racialized peoples in Toronto harder than any other group. In Ontario, Peel Region has been highlighted as a COVID-19 hotspot, yet many seem to forget that this region is largely occupied by racialized blue collar workers. 

So, what are some ways essential employees can stay safe and protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19? Here are some comprehensive tips on how to stay safe.  

Do the simple stuff first 

Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and keep your mask above your nose. If you feel unsafe working with a potentially maskless or volatile customer, contact a manager. Even if your manager may respond less than kindly to you, it’s their responsibility to keep you safe. 

Evaluate your transportation options

Whether you take public transit, a personal vehicle, or a rideshare service to work, The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has a comprehensive guide on how to protect yourself when using transportation. Some general practices the guide suggests are to keep your mask on, avoid touching surfaces, and seek out ventilated options. If you use a rideshare, ask the driver to improve the ventilation in the vehicle, for example, by opening the windows. Practice hand hygiene when exiting your chosen transportation method and ensure you disinfect any contact areas. If you can walk to and from work, even better.

Wash your clothing immediately after a shift 

As tempting as it may be to return home after a long day and lounge about, a good general practice is to wash the clothes you wore outside If possible, take them off at the door and set them into a laundry hamper before you shower. Remember to disinfect your hands after taking off your dirty clothes and before touching clean clothes. It is also good practice to take off your shoes before you enter your house. 

Set your bag aside

Try to take the same bag to work everyday and set it aside in your home when you return. Disinfect your hands after you touch your bag and don’t throw it onto your bed. You can instead set a clean garbage bag down on the floor and place your bag there upon returning home. Your bag comes into contact with just as many things as your clothes do, and it likely has had contact with unwashed hands, shared storage space, and public transit.  

Disinfect your phone

Disinfect all high-touch objects you took to work with you, especially your phone. Clean your phone at least once daily upon returning home. A 2019 survey found that people touch their phones about 2,617 times in one day, so disinfecting your phone is now more important than ever. 

Check in with yourself

This is not a normal situation and it’s okay to recognize that. You’re working through an unprecedented time and if you’re reading this, you likely have fears about staying safe. Keep in practice with these preventative measures and remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Check in with yourself and acknowledge your feelings. Remember to prioritize your own mental health and wellbeing. Essential employees have kept our communities running through a difficult and frightening time, and all that any customer should be saying is a heartfelt “thank you”.