What ‘just doing my job’ now means

We must give a hand to those who are risking their well-being for everyone’s –– they include our friends, fellow students, and family members. 


Jared Mitovich

Customers lined up outside Wegmans on Friday morning. Many wore masks and gloves. A sign on the right reads “Entrance only” as the store is controlling the number of shoppers who enter.

“I am just doing my job,” Pascack Hills sophomore Kailani Perez explained when asked if she considered herself an essential worker. “I knew going into it that I could potentially be exposed to viruses like these.”

Perez is referring to the coronavirus, a respiratory illness that has infected more than one million people across the world according to Johns Hopkins University. It’s taken more than 50,000 lives, including residents of the area in Montvale, Park Ridge, and River Vale. It’s also put her on the front lines, as Perez continues to work part-time as a cashier at Wegmans, where hundreds of customers now line up at 7 a.m., masked and gloved, to shop for toilet paper, towels, and food before their shopping list becomes the “sold out” list. (Side note: at the top of my list are Wegmans’ Ultimate Chocolate Cookies.)

However, Perez doesn’t personally consider herself an essential worker –– ”grocery store workers are essential, but I don’t necessarily consider myself essential.”

In my view, her perspective shows two things. First, it shows the surreality of this situation. As a colleague of hers, only a month ago in our neighboring registers, we’d joked about having to wear gloves and masks while cashing out customers. 

Now, Perez says, there are plexiglass screens at every register “so customers can’t breathe and cough on cashiers.”

An example of the screens Wegmans has placed in front of registers. Photo courtesy of Wegmans.

While employees like Perez and myself were trained to be prepared for viruses, we can agree we never expected it to get this severe. Hills junior Aria Chalileh, another part-time Wegmans cashier, explained the situation at the Montvale location may be compounded by the fact that “people come from around the county to shop here.”

Perez’s perspective also shows the selflessness, often not by choice, of workers.

“I have not worked for the past three weeks, as my parents are stressed about me possibly contracting the virus,” Chalileh admitted.

Chalileh and I have both taken off from work, which the managers were extremely understanding of. However, Stephen Schmidt, another student cashier, points out that many employees “don’t have that economic luxury.” For some, it is just one of many jobs needed to support themselves. For others, their families have become part of the ten million newly unemployed Americans looking down the barrel of financial hardship. Governor Phil Murphy has said these employees –– grocery store workers, delivery workers, health care workers, and others –– are essential, as they are “[committing] themselves to the New Jersey family.”  

The governor is right. As they clock in on the time clock, stretch the gloves over their hands, greet customers, and wipe down their part of the store, these workers are being more courageous than they give themselves credit for. Yes, they’re “just doing” their job, but “just doing” now means instructing shoppers to stand behind the social distancing line while their items are being scanned and bagged, taking more time each day to restock produce, or managing the line of early-bird shoppers that now snakes around the storefront by 7 a.m., which presses for extra “six feet apart, please” precautions. 

“Without grocery store employees, the shelves would be empty, the store wouldn’t be clean, and there would be no way to check out customers,” Schmidt said.

Their crucial service to the community also risks their own exposure. Perez explained employees “constantly have social interaction and are constantly exposed to the virus.” To preserve her well-being behind that plexiglass screen, she wears gloves and constantly washes her hands. Perez added that “Wegmans has taken a lot of care in order to ensure that both the customers and cashiers stay safe.”

Employees interviewed who have either continued to work as the pandemic manifested or have now taken temporary leave agreed that Wegmans’ safety rules and protections made them feel safer working. Chalileh explained that “the company seems to have enough staff members despite many requests to take off,” and managers were continuing to be friendly and helpful.

However, the coronavirus is surprisingly permeable, with anecdotal media documentations of events like singing at choir practice causing a string of infections. As studies continue to suggest it can travel by way of someone’s mere voice or breath, it is clear even the thickest cut of glass might not be able to shatter the virus’ diffusion in the right conditions. 

On March 28, Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali announced that a non-resident Wegmans employee had tested positive for the coronavirus; the last time they were on the premises was March 19. Since then, Perez said “the store has been on edge a little bit,” and Chalileh said the store’s environment has “changed immensely… employees are stressed.” She commended all of those continuing to work for their resilience, including Perez and colleagues.

The store’s environment has changed immensely… employees are stressed.

— Aria Chalileh

The experiences shared by students who work part-time help to show that the definition of an essential worker is a broad one. During this time, I (and hopefully their bosses) would define it as anyone who is risking their own exposure by offering crucial service to the community. This includes but is not limited to grocery store workers, garbage workers, Door Dashers, Instacart shoppers, and other delivery drivers; and most vitally the nurses, doctors, and health care professionals who exhaust themselves every day saving lives.

While many of us are both grateful and aggrieved to be safe at home social distancing (it’s working, so keep doing it), we must give a hand to those who are risking their well-being for everyone’s –– they include our friends, fellow students, and family members. 

Like the beautiful viral videos of Italians and Spaniards singing, clapping, and banging pots from their balconies, we too can get a “little bit rowdy” in thanks to those serving our community. Let’s show our Hills pride and support so that when we return to school, we can first celebrate the physical presence of human beings –– and then go back to just doing our jobs.