Chicago Workers Share Their Experiences During COVID-19

Armando Fabela
6 min readApr 29, 2021

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By Melanie Corral, Armando Fabela, Andrea Juarez

With more than 600 million search results on the topic, COVID-19 has affected millions of families across the world mentally, physically, and financially.

COVID-19 has also affected the economy as more people continue to struggle to find jobs and companies continue to struggle to stay open.

Chicago’s workforce data:

Back at the start of 2020 unemployment rates within Chicago were at low rates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, at the start of March 2020, which was around the time we were placed under strict quarantine; the unemployment rate was 4.1%.

By April 2020, the unemployment rate drastically spiked upwards and we saw the rise of unemployment to 16.5%.

Many factors contributed to this, but they are all related to COVID-19.

Restrictions were placed around the world, travel was banned and of course here in Chicago, residents were placed in quarantine and any forms of non-essential businesses were closed.

Google Trends: Google searches for COVID-19 and unemployment from the start of the pandemic to now. Searches for unemployment and COVID-19 rose at the beginning of the pandemic dramatically and came down as the pandemic settled.

Especially for Chicago Black and Brown communities, who were reporting the most amount of COVID-19 cases especially these three neighborhoods: Brighton Park, Belmont Cragin, and West Lawn.

Going into detail zip codes, 60632/Brighton Park saw 7,105 COVID cases at its peak and 60623/Little Village saw 6,199 COVID cases at its peak.

During these months in Chicago applicants towards unemployment rose, especially as many restaurant workers were laid off and small businesses were closed, however some companies such as Chipotle Mexican Grill stayed open throughout the whole pandemic.

The following are the protocols they decided to enforce to follow safety protocols which include hand sanitizer for guests, hand washing every 30 minutes for employees, face masks for all crew members.

Despite the fact that in door dining was closed off which amounts to huge sales, Chipotle continued contactless delivery and pickup, using tamper-evident bags, daily wellness checks and of course main social distancing in restaurants of 6 feet apart.

That being said, the workforce has changed drastically ever since the start of the pandemic. People have lost their jobs, stores have been shut down, companies have gone bankrupt, etc.

Being that the workforce continues to be impacted, people who play big roles in their jobs and were affected directly by COVID-19 were interviewed to garner their experiences working during the pandemic.

The main concern with working during a pandemic is staying safe and healthy. Being a restaurant manager, you must consider all factors possible to ensure not only that you are safe, but your employees are as well.

Yvette Garcia (front left), Chipotle General Manager, and Chipotle Service Managers Photo by Ronnie Waterhouse

Yvette Garcia, general manager at Chipotle in downtown Chicago, contracted COVID-19. After recovering, she continued to run her business by following CDC guidelines and maintaining sanitary conditions to allow her restaurant to stay open.

Garcia said she had to deal with during the pandemic was her employees not coming to work and customers not showing up.

“Everybody stood home… it was like a huge gap that we had… people didn’t want to come in to work, like the offices around the area,” Garcia said.

Garcia described how hard it was to have a lack of employees and lack of customers in her attempts to keep running her business at the start of the pandemic.

“We had some team members, you know, because their parents are much older… they did take some time off during the first weeks when the epidemic was evolving, but later they understood a little bit, like how can they take better precautions and the things we were doing in our restaurant to keep them safe, so that it wouldn’t extend to their families or anything like that because we became essential workers,” Garcia said.

Franky Garcia, a research assistant in Biological Science at the University of Chicago, said his ability to work was not hindered as his job coincided with the pandemic itself and was researching those who tested positive.

Franky Garcia, University Of Chicago Research Analyst Photo by Franky Garcia

“Being a research assistant, [we] really jump on to a COVID related study right off the bat… I had work lined up for me despite it being a whole pandemic,” Garcia said.

COVID-19 has both created and reduced job positions as we can see many that struggle in their business and those who survive in their positions.

The sectors that were hit the hardest include the leisure and hospitality sectors. As we saw by the end of 2020, Illinois which benefits from tourism and travel saw a 31.7% loss in leisure and hospitality jobs. Part of the reason why Illinois lost so many jobs in this sector was because of the severe protocols that were placed throughout Illinois and in the city of Chicago which has always been a hub for transportation and commute throughout the U.S.

This leads to another important topic of how different areas of Chicago were affected by this pandemic, especially in underserved communities and more local neighborhoods.

Zaira Lopez, 22, is a service manager at the Chipotle in the Illinois Medical District, said she deals with an immense amount of customers and deliveries on a daily basis, especially as her location attracts delivery services, such as Uber Eats and DoorDash.

Given that the location is near schools and apartments, most orders are carry outs, while also most of the customers are officials such as medical and police officers, all whom on a daily basis deal and interact with people.

“I actually lost hours at my job, so I wasn’t making enough money. I also couldn’t see a lot of the people around me,” Lopez said.

Lopez said she believes her commute to work increased her chances of gaining COVID-19 since she had to take public transportation to and from work.

“It actually did increase since I would have to take public transportation… I would have to go on the bus or train,” Lopez said of her work commute from Chicago’s southwest side Brighton Park neighborhood.

Brighton Park suffered some of the highest infection rates in Chicago along with other ZIP codes, such as 60629, 60632 and 60639. Brighton Park has the second most cases with 14, 276 as of April 2021.

By having her hours cut Lopez was placed under more pressure as she had to find other solutions to help her pay her rent and her daily needs.

Despite this Lopez commuted back and forth between her job and home, since she still had a reliable source of income and was able to receive working hours. Lopez does reveal that her initial thoughts to the pandemic weren’t serious, since there seemed to be lack of knowledge and no sense of fear, but she does enforce the fact that at the peak of infections she became scared for her and her family, especially as she traveled as an essential worker everyday.

Lopez said she hopes for a better future especially in the ways the government dealt with this pandemic and in the way they handle future crises, especially towards essential workers like herself and communities located in lower-class neighborhoods such as Brighton Park.

“I hope that we eventually go back to normal…But I do expect the government to handle situations like this a lot better,” Lopez said.

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