They're still working. They're still healthy. But they're still scared. What the past six months have been like for Chicago's essential workers

©Chicago Tribune

Adarra Benjamin, 26, is a home care aid who continues to work through the COVID-19 crisis because her elderly and disabled clients need her. - Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — When the streets emptied of people six months ago, a new class of heroes emerged.

They were the drivers, grocery clerks, janitors and others who braved the early unease of the pandemic to show up for work, exempt from the state’s stay-at-home order because they were deemed too important.

Home health aide Adarra Benjamin, 26

Many people have grown lax about disinfecting every last object that comes into their home. But Adarra Benjamin, a home health aide and personal assistant with elderly and disabled clients, has not let down her guard.

She still wipes down every grocery item before leaving the store and sprays the bags with disinfectant, vigilant about keeping the virus away from the people in her care as well as the home where she lives with her mother.

“The fear and caution are still there,” said Benjamin, 26. She, her family and her clients have not contracted COVID-19, she said, but a friend who works at the post office, and another who works at a day care, have.

Benjamin, who takes several buses and trains to reach her clients’ homes, said Chicago Transit Authority rider limits imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have made her feel safer. But she said she isn’t getting enough support from her two employers — a home health agency that pays $14 an hour, after Chicago raised its minimum wage, and a state agency that raised its pay to $14.50 thanks to contract negotiations. Through her union she has been fighting for more personal protective equipment and hazard pay.

To her surprise, Benjamin has felt a shift in her relationships with some of her clients, who have become so isolated by the pandemic that she is their only connection to the outside world. One client in particular, a 20-something woman with an intellectual disability, has had a difficult time comprehending the changes to her routine. They take walks together.

“Our relationships have grown deeper because now I see you have that dependency on me,” Benjamin said. “I’ve grown closer than I’ve ever thought possible in such a short amount of time.”

CTA car servicer Bennie Hill III, 41

About a month into the state’s shutdown order, Bennie Hill III, who cleans CTA trains, received permission to take extended time off. He has diabetes, an underlying condition that makes him vulnerable to COVID-19, and stayed home for nearly four months to prevent exposure.

Hill returned to work mid-August because he needed the paycheck. Armed with gloves, a mask and hand sanitizer, he disinfects train cars at the 95th Street Red Line station on the South Side, which is still largely devoid of commuters.

“I’m back on the scene and practicing safe social distancing,” said Hill, 41, who has worked at the agency for 23 years and earns about $30 an hour.

The light ridership, including fewer homeless people sleeping in the cars, has made him feel safer, he said.

Still, he worries about bringing the virus into his home, where his 15-month-old daughter lives with her mother and two other children.

“That’s constantly on the brain,” Hill said. “All you can do is stay aware of your surroundings. So far, so good.”

About 200 CTA train workers represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 have been documented as having contracted COVID-19, said union President Ken Franklin. There have been no fatalities. Bus employees are represented by a different local of the union.

Hill has felt gratitude from passengers. “Some people actually say ‘thank you’ and commend us for our work ethic,” he said. “It makes me feel good that I’m helping out and that it’s being recognized.”

Janitor Urszula Przybys, 65

When workplaces sent employees home en masse, not knowing when they might return, Urszula Przybys worried she would lose her job cleaning a major downtown office building.

She has been spared, as her union’s contract protects jobs by seniority, but many of her colleagues have been laid off.

“The most difficult thing is that I worry about (office) people never come back,” said Przybys, who immigrated from Poland 40 years ago and has cleaned downtown buildings for more than 30. “Nobody thinks that it’s going to take this long.”

About 1,300 janitors represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1 were laid off during the pandemic, or 10% of its janitorial members. A fraction have been called back, said union spokeswoman Izabela Miltko-Ivkovich.

Downtown office buildings remain largely empty as workplaces pushed back plans to reopen amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, but Przybys is there, disinfecting bathrooms and other surfaces with special cleaning solutions for those who have returned.

“I feel lonely, you know,” said Przybys, not only because employees aren’t there but also due to rules to maintain distance from colleagues. “We have to be separate because of safety.”

Supplied with masks and gloves, Przybys said she feels relatively safe. She carpools to work with a friend to avoid taking the train, and neither she nor anyone in her household has gotten COVID-19.

She is more concerned about the pandemic killing her job, which provides her with good insurance and benefits. She is the breadwinner at her home, where she lives with her adult daughter, who has a disability from back surgery, and three grandchildren.

Truck driver Todd Feitl, 37

Alone in his truck for hours at a time, Todd Feitl isn’t worried about contracting COVID-19. He is worried about his income as continued economic uncertainty threatens to disrupt the flow of goods.

Feitl, who transports mostly raw materials from rail yards to warehouses, said work started to sputter in April, as government shutdowns across the globe interfered with imports.

Some weeks his paycheck was 10% of what it usually is. He spent the ample downtime working on home remodeling projects he’d put off for years.

Feitl, an independent contractor, broke even during those difficult months thanks to an $8,250 loan he received through the federal paycheck protection program, but he isn’t sure he’ll be able to get it forgiven.

“The PPP loan scares me because if I have to pay it back it will be difficult,” said Feitl, who lives in Chicago’s Clearing neighborhood.

Business has picked up significantly during the past two months as companies restock, to the point that there aren’t enough trucks to handle all the freight, he said. The closure of some small trucking firms during the crisis is pushing more business his way, said Feitl, who recently returned from hauling canned food to Iowa and car batteries back.

Still, the boom is not giving him peace of mind. He suspects much of it is artificial demand as stores bolster inventory in case there is another shutdown.

“There’s so much uncertainty,” he said. “This industry can shift overnight.”

Grocery store worker Luke Magana, 20

After working for months as a cashier and eager to try something different, Luke Magana recently transferred to Mariano’s pickup department, where he fulfills online orders and contacts customers when items they want aren’t available.

The days go by quickly as he shops the aisles at the Oak Lawn store, which feels like it has returned to normal since those frantic early days of the pandemic when people were making runs on toilet paper. The only items that still seem to be consistently out of stock are certain brands of disinfectant wipes and sprays. Some shoppers buy more than they should.

“People act like there’s nobody else in this world,” he said.

Magana, who lives with his mother, has not contracted COVID-19 and neither has anyone in his family, he said. He has a drawer full of “cute, colorful” masks that he says make him feel safe.

Though he faces the public all the time at work, Magana said social gatherings make him far more nervous, and he’s declined friends’ invitations.

“At work they’re wearing masks,” he said. “At parties they’re not wearing masks.”

Most customers comply with store rules requiring masks, but Magana recalls one maskless shopper in his checkout line who was asked by a colleague to put on a mask but declined to do so.

Mariano’s policy on dealing with such situations is to offer to sell the person a mask, or give them one if they decline to purchase. If they still refuse, “we politely ask customers to observe on their next trip and remind of pickup or delivery,” spokeswoman Amanda Puck said.

Magana, who has worked at Mariano’s for three years, is starting to explore careers outside of grocery stores. While the bonus pay that grocery store workers received during the early months of the pandemic was helpful, more recently hours have been unpredictable and he wants a steady paycheck.

He is thinking he might go back to school to become a medical assistant, a job that attracts him because “I love helping people.” He is in the process of figuring out how to apply for federal student aid.

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©2020 Chicago Tribune

CTA car servicer Bennie Hill III mops the floor of a Red Line train car at the 95th Street station on Sept. 10, 2020, in Chicago. - John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Urszula Przybys walks to the entrance of the building where she cleans offices. - Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Todd Feitl, 37, is a truck driver who is working through the coronavirus crisis, often hauling food from rail yards to warehouses. - Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Luke Magana works as a cashier at Mariano's in Oak Lawn on March 20, 2020. - Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS