By Megan Landvatter, Current Staff
A year ago, Chris Meyers spent his Friday nights seating customers at Texas Roadhouse. Now, he spends his Friday nights wiping down menus.
As the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown approaches, area high school students continue to put their lives on the line. For these students, the pandemic has affected their work life as well as their school life. After the virus outbreak last March, some businesses were forced to shut down and put in safety precautions to help prevent the spread of the virus.
“When it first started, we completely shut down for about two months,” said Meyers, a senior at West Bend West High School. “And then we went to completely curbside, nobody allowed in, only bringing food out to the cars. There was a very big reduction in hours because I wasn’t trained in taking to-go orders, so for a while I was not working at all.”
By the time restaurants were able to reopen, Texas Roadhouse had created a new position called Sanitizing Manager, where the assigned employee wipes down all of the menus and any other items that customers might touch, including ketchup bottles and salt and pepper shakers.
“It is very boring doing that job,” Meyers said. “The only thing is that the table that you sanitize at is kind of in the bar area so the TVs are around, but if you’re not interested in what’s on, then it’s pretty boring standing there because you don’t really get any customer interaction or any interaction with any other employees.”
However, the pandemic has prompted some customers to take out their anger and frustration on some of the employees. Although not very often, Meyers has experienced some of the aggression first hand.
“We’ve had a lot of customers be very angry with us,” Meyers said. “I’ve personally been insulted. The entire restaurant’s been insulted. There was one time where the sign that we have up that says masks are here if you’d like one, we told a customer that he needed to put on a mask, and he just hit the sign and it was just held up by an upside down cup because the weight that was in it before got lost and then the cup shattered on the floor so we had to clean that up and he stormed out while yelling profanities.”
Unlike Meyers, West senior Matthew Rolf quit his job at Silver Lake Country Inn, a restaurant in West Bend, and applied at Stein’s Garden & Home in West Bend shortly after Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order went into effect.
“The restaurant shut down and I could have waited a few months and then kept working but I wanted to work so I quit and got a new job,” Rolf said. “At first at Stein’s all we had for precautions were distancing with customers when they were checking out and just staying six feet apart in general. We didn’t enforce masks on employees or customers till late July or so.”
West senior Alex Stewart, a produce clerk at the West Bend South Pick ‘n Save, has tried to enforce the mask policy on those that he believes will listen, whether they are fellow employees or customers.
“One notable employee was really taken aback that I had the audacity to speak to her and tell her that she should be wearing a mask, and now that employee has COVID,” Stewart said. “Some other customers are very rude and indignant about it, but most of them are just willing to help and take this basic safety precaution to try to help other people.”
As an essential business, Pick ‘n Save stayed open while other businesses shut down last March. The store gave its employees a hero bonus of an extra two dollars per hour for working during the pandemic as well as the occasional $100 of in-store credit in order to incentivize employees while enforcing new regulations. Along with mandatory masks, employees were also required to have a temperature check done by a manager at the start of their shift.
“The other thing was a temperature check that was mandated for a while,” Stewart said. “But that quickly stopped happening because people didn’t care enough to do it and the managers weren’t too particular about wanting to enforce it either.”
For Stewart, the biggest change was not even in his own department. Through the Clicklist department, customers can have employees do their shopping for them and pick up their groceries outside of the store.
“The store’s Clicklist people, they’ve been really ramping up lately because people don’t want to walk into the store too much,” Stewart said.
Unlike most other workers, West Bend East High School junior Maren McDonnell, a lifeguard at the WBHS pool, does not have to wear a mask due to the nature of her job.
“Lifeguards are exempt from wearing masks because it would take too much time for us to take them off in case we had to save somebody,” McDonnell said. “But I know that coaches and even the swimmers have to wear masks when they’re out of the water.”
Since she is on the swim team, McDonnell is already exposed to most of the West Bend swimmers. However, the small precaution of wearing masks has helped her feel safer when exposed to those from other schools.
“Because I lifeguard during meets, I do have to come in contact with people from other schools, so the entire Hartford boys swim team, for example,” McDonnell said.
East senior Emily Huesemann worked as a stocker at the BP gas station, an essential business, at the start of the pandemic. However, for her, not much changed after the lockdown.
“In the beginning they did nothing at all,” Huesemann said. “They did not implement any precautions until it was necessary. My work still served food after being told it was not allowed. Many people did not wear masks and it was concerning.”
Due to the lack of safety and other concerns, Huesemann decided to quit her job. She says she put her life on the line by being there.
“I would not consider myself an essential worker, but I did still go in every day,” Huesemann said.
(Top image: West Bend East High School junior Maren McDonnell works as a lifeguard at a swim meet at the WBHS pool. Photo courtesy of McDonnell.)