Worker Experience: Michael

Michael Chapple has always made his living in the food service industry and now works as a cook at a Milwaukee-area hospital cafeteria. Since being dubbed ‘essential’, Michael feels the health risks his job poses for himself, his 80-year-old mother, and 15-year-old son are not worth the paycheck he collects for his work on the front lines.

When the news of the COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home orders first hit, Michael found himself initiating the conversation around lay-offs, unemployment, and essential work with his supervisors.

“I went and asked my boss,” Michael said. “I ask them questions because we don’t have a lot of meetings and they don’t talk about the topics that I’d like to talk about.”

His managers told Michael that the hospital cafeteria would continue “business as normal” – meaning regular hours and regular pay – but with social distancing measures and additional cleaning and hand-washing routines to promote health and safety. Despite his station manning the hot cafeteria grills, Michael wears a face mask during his entire eight-hour shift. Still, he feels these precautions are not enough to keep him protected from the potential health threats of working in a hospital cafeteria.

“I’ve seen [customers] coming in without a mask on and I report it to the manager right away. I’m just doing it for everyone to be safe,” Michael said. As the economy reopens, the cafeteria receives increasing foot traffic from hospital staff, patients, and guests – not all of whom are as vigilant about preventative health measures as Michael, who suggests that “people don’t realize the depth of the COVID sickness.”

After working a full day at the hospital cafeteria, Michael comes home to take care of his elderly mother. At 80 years old, Michael’s mom is especially vulnerable to the risks of the coronavirus.

“When the COVID stuff started out, I thought, ‘this is terrible and I’ll stay with my mom,’” Michael recalled. “I told mom, ‘I’ll be here to take care of you every day that you need me to.’”

But caring for his mother after shifts as an essential worker in a hospital presents its own challenges. Michael disinfects himself upon returning home from work. He takes extra precautions when preparing her food. He even maintains a social distance of six feet from his mother at all times.

“I can’t even hug her. In the morning I just have to say ‘see you later mom,’” Michael says. He emphasized the importance of proper social distancing in the home. “And then I got a son that’s 15 that has not been here since February…he usually spends the night here every weekend.”

But increased risk and responsibility of essential food service work in a hospital setting does not come with increased benefits. Michael told of conversations with his supervisors, who reported that essential workers in the cafeteria would not receive supplemental pay or benefits to compensate for the chronic stress and perpetual risk associated with their work. This weighs heavily on Michael.

“It’s much riskier now and it’s not worth it. That’s another thing it’s not at all worth it,” Michael said. “I know I’m gonna have to find a new profession.”