COVID-19 and the Essential Worker

Sherry Smith working alone on Thanksgiving. She loos over paperwork before preparing for the next day. (Photo taken by Robbie Wethington)

Just before 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 26, Sherry Smith unlocks the doors of the Arby’s in Danville, KY. She walks through the door and heads straight to the alarm system to deactivate it. Normally the store would be loud and busy with employees cooking, taking, and preparing orders during a dinner rush, but tonight it is peaceful. The store is closed for Thanksgiving.

Smith, who has been with the company since April 2018 and has been a shift leader since this past September, is there to prepare for the next morning. She has to ensure that the roast beef is cooked and ready to go. While there, she also takes time to get other prep work finished to make the next morning go as smoothly as possible.

Smith does more prep work than is required of her. She fills out the necessary labels for food products. (Photo taken by Robbie Wethington)

To Smith, an essential worker is someone who is needed daily to provide important services that affect someone else’s everyday routine. People still lead busy lives during a pandemic, and she is there to offer them a fresh, hot meal to energize them to power through it. Though Smith says that it feels good to be essential, she admits that it can be very stressful.

Smith gets a head start on the next day’s prep. She slices lettuce used for various menu items. (Photo taken by Robbie Wethington)

On a business level, the store has seen an influx in customers — all of which are forced to use the single drive-through, as the store’s lobby has been closed since March due to the pandemic. With this influx of customers, the store has also dealt with a decrease in employees, resulting in a more stressful environment for those currently working.

Smith in a moment of tiredness. She typically works the morning shift. (Photo taken by Robbie Wethington)

Personally, Smith is concerned with what being an essential worker means for her health. Interacting with many individuals every day worries her about contracting COVID-19 herself, or even passing it on to her children or grandchildren. Thus far though, she has yet to have a COVID scare.

Smith taking a moment to rest. Though stressful, she enjoys her job. (Photo taken by Robbie Wethington)

Despite the stress of being an essential worker, Smith manages it well. She considers herself a strong individual who takes it all day by day. Though, sometimes it can be difficult to deal with customers’ increasing irritability and impatience. They don’t seem to be very understanding of the increased wait times due to the increase in business and lobby closure. Of the customers, Smith says, “people can be very rude.”

Smith readies to prepare the roast beef. It went on to cook overnight. (Photo taken by Robbie Wethington)

Ultimately, Smith wants customers to know, “We are working as hard as we can to serve them, and we have respect for them. We expect the same as essential fast food workers.”

Smith’s general manager, Rochelle Wilder, agrees. “We want to make sure that every customer that comes to our store has the best possible experience, and we do our best to be fast, efficient, and friendly. All we ask is for a little grace and understanding. We are people too.”

Smith is finished for the night. She entered the security code to lock up for the night. (Photo taken by Robbie Wethington)

Going forward, Smith doesn’t expect there to be any long-term ramifications to her job and workplace due to COVID-19. Even when she is no longer considered an essential worker, she knows that she will remain essential to the customers that come to Arby’s, continuing to serve them the fresh, hot meals they have come to expect every single day.

Full time public relations major at EKU. Part time amateur photographer.