Editor’s note: The names of all interviewed essential workers have been omitted to protect their identities and their jobs.
When COVID-19 lockdown guidelines began, many of us were safely at home making TikTok recipes, facetiming our friends and only going out when absolutely necessary. You know, because we wanted to stop the spread of COVID-19 as soon as possible and we care for our community.
But that wasn’t the case for the University of Washington Greek system. Even though the whole Greek system was shut down, that did not stop members from partying in live-out houses. As of last week, the UW Greek Row reached 212 cases of coronavirus, out of 500 total cases at the university. Their careless partying is affecting other people in the area, especially essential workers.
People living in this radius obviously need to go outside to get food and other supplies, which means being in contact with essential workers and, therefore, risking them to COVID-19. It is almost impossible for these workers to avoid contact with people living there, given the frequency of their shifts and the close physical proximity of their workplaces to the fraternities and sororities.
Three of the workers interviewed for this article work at fast food places near University Way Northeast, or the Ave, and University Village, which are frequented by students in the Greek system.
“I work in the fast food industry, and I can say that [in] every shift that I work, I definitely serve a few groups of people in the Greek system,” a first-generation female college junior, working in the fast food industry, said.
Another person I interviewed, a female college junior, works in the Seattle Flu Study COVID-19 testing facility.
“The main focus of the Seattle Flu Study, in conjunction with other labs, is the Greek Row outbreak, so we are in high contact with these individuals,” she said.
Most of these essential workers are college students who take on these jobs to cover rent payments, among other basic living expenses, and sometimes they even work to support their families.
“My parents haven’t been able to financially support me since I was 16,” a male college sophomore working in the fast food industry said. “I rely on this money to pay for tuition, rent, food, [and much more].”
In addition to this, for many student essential workers, supporting their families also entails needing to visit them sometimes, which poses infection risks to older and immunocompromised family and household members.
“My parents are the people that I interact with that are [most] vulnerable, especially since they are both older adults and are also essential workers,” said a first-generation female college junior, who works in the food industry.
The risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 isn’t limited to interactions with customers. Some students in the Greek system are also essential workers, and they continue to throw big parties and disregard social distancing guidelines, knowingly exposing their other co-workers to COVID-19.
The male sophomore, working in the food industry, also expressed his concerns about exposing his family to COVID-19.
“One Greek member exposed my whole workplace to COVID-19 and we were required to quarantine for two weeks,” he said. “What scared me most was the fact that I saw my mom — the main caregiver to my grandpa, who is very weak and ill — a day after I was exposed.” The sophomore is extremely worried that he may contract and spread the virus to his vulnerable family members.
Work exposure to COVID-19 carries consequences beyond only exposure. For most essential workers, this also poses a threat to their financial stability due to unpaid time off. The male sophomore explained how some of his coworkers were not paid for the two week quarantine they had to undergo, given that the company only allows one period of paid leave for reasons related to COVID-19. He feared that if he was exposed again, he would have to take unpaid time off.
While the University of Washington administration has made efforts to detect COVID-19 in students by setting up the Husky Coronavirus Testing Program, the UW has not enforced social distancing guidelines or held the Greek system accountable at all.
All of the essential workers interviewed told me their concerns and frustrations over the neglectful behavior of the Greek system at the UW. They all reported feeling fearful of contracting COVID-19 while at work, and having to accommodate their lifestyles around these circumstances that they cannot control.
“It’s disheartening to know and witness these folks not doing their part,” the female student working in the lab said. “It’s difficult to break habits and to get people to care about others who they’re not immediately in contact with. We all want to go back to normalcy, but you also cannot speed up the process by trying to go back to a normal life.”’.
She further stated that, “science doesn’t wait for normalcy, we are constantly battling a virus that changes much faster than anything we’ve seen before.”
The sophomore student working in fast food echoed her sentiment.
“Many of us have come to terms with the likely reality that [the COVID-19 outbreak] will continue to be mishandled and [will] intensify, and we are preparing ourselves for the worst,” she said. “The individuals who are striving to act with caution are the ones expected to accommodate their lifestyles for the neglectful behaviors of others.”
“The individuals who are striving to act with caution are the ones expected to accommodate their lifestyles for the neglectful behaviors of others.”
— a UW essential worker
Due to this predicament of harming and exposing student workers, these essential workers wished that the UW administration took more tangible measures to hold Greek life accountable for their careless actions. The interviewees suggested that suspension or expulsion from the university, or dissolving Greek chapters found guilty of disobeying social distancing guidelines, could improve the situation.
“The inflammation of COVID cases on the Seattle campus can be explained, in part, by the institution’s failure to properly address the pandemic and practice genuine accountability in its relationship with students in the Greek system,” said the female sophomore. “For many, it is common knowledge that Greek Row is a no-touch zone for the university. To a large extent, they are treated as exempt from the regulations and measures in place to uphold collective safety and welfare.”
She proceeded to question where the UW’s priorities are, immediately answering, “certainly not in protecting its marginalized student and worker body.”
The University of Washington has shown very little concern in protecting its essential workers and marginalized students, who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
“These workers are called essential workers not only due to the fact that they hold this economy together, but because their work is also essential to them. Why else would you work during a pandemic? It’s because we need that money to survive,” said the male sophomore working in the fast food industry. “[The UW’s neglect of these circumstances] is extremely inconsiderate and does not represent what it stands for at all.”
“These workers are called essential workers not only due to the fact that they hold this economy together, but because their work is also essential to them.”
— another UW essential worker
If the UW truly cares about its students, it needs to hold those who are risking the lives of marginalized students and community members accountable. If people in the Greek system have access to media information about the dangers that large gatherings and parties pose, yet still partake in these activities, it’s because they truly don’t care. Essential workers are human beings, with livelihoods to take care of, and it’s time to start seeing them as so.
To UW Greek Row students: The U-District neighborhood is not your playground.
Last updated 10/23/20
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