No days off for Pitt students working essential jobs

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Many students are still working jobs that are considered essential.

By Martha Layne, Senior Staff Writer

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Just because Pitt has moved to online classes doesn’t mean that students are always in front of the computer. Some are still out and about, working essential jobs.

Pitt students are among those working in hospitals, restaurants and other businesses deemed essential by the Pennsylvania government. Unlike other essential workers, these college students face an additional responsibility of managing their course load through online classes. 

When senior microbiology major Grant Larson isn’t in class, he’s researching COVID-19 in his hometown of Boston at the Massachusetts General Hospital. His job as a clinical researcher involves screening and enrolling patients for a study on a potential treatment, as well as collecting data from around the hospital for 10 to 12 hours per day. He said in an email the balance between his work and school is difficult to find, especially since his job, though enjoyable, requires long hours and constant exposure to the sick.

“It has been difficult to be home and study at the same time because my priorities are now split. I have to work harder to make sure my prioritization of school does not suffer,“ Larson said. “I can’t go home since I am exposing myself in a hospital, so I don’t have anything else to do (besides online classes)!”

Larson’s work schedule allows him to work around his class schedule, and it helps that most of his classes do not require him to be online at a certain time. Meeting deadlines is another struggle for him, but he said that his professors have been very patient and accommodating, for which he’s thankful. After graduating, Larson plans on taking a gap year to continue doing clinical research. 

Students working in retail and restaurants also face constant exposure, as well as unfriendly customers and demanding work environments, on top of finishing up the semester. Sophomore history major Catherine Tomes works at a Dairy Queen in New Kensington, about 20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. She’s been working three to four days a week with varying hours each week in order to pay her bills and buy essentials. 

Tomes said she has had to face disrespectful or sick customers on a daily basis, including one customer who knowingly coughed toward her face. According to her, customers complain both when the Dairy Queen employees wear gloves and when they don’t. Overall, she said in an email, the stress and demanding nature of her job has made finishing schoolwork difficult. 

“I’m exhausted, and my anger is at an all time high, and my tolerance is at an all time low,” Tomes said. “I believe that I’m stressed now because I’m not on campus. On campus I become driven and focused. I get into some sort of mindset like I’m running a marathon while on campus. As soon as I got home, my mind and body felt like they were on vacation.”

In addition to her work at Dairy Queen, Tomes is also one of the students working on a campaign for Jerry Dickinson, so her time is being split between those two commitments in addition to school. She feels her school and work schedules are not flexible enough to easily schedule around each other, so it causes her extra stress. Additionally, she said although she is grateful for the job, she feels it isn’t worth the exposure.

Ice cream is not essential. Ice cream is unhealthy and does not keep people alive. Dairy Queen is a luxury,” Tomes said. “I appreciate having a job though during this time, and I wouldn’t want my bosses to be hurt by this pandemic. The DQ I work at is family-owned, and they have all of my respect.”

Other students find working and school a welcome relief from the other. 

First-year transfer chemical engineering major Jorge Sevilla-Cruz is a full-time kitchen manager in training at the Chipotle on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, which is only serving customers through online orders. Customers can pick up online orders in person or have it delivered. Sevilla-Cruz and his coworkers have stayed busy cleaning the store since there are considerably less orders than usual. 

For Sevilla-Cruz, school is a break from the 32 hours he spends a week working. He said that moving between the two responsibilities keeps his days balanced. Going to work helps him set aside healthy amounts of time to study and provides a social outlet. 

Sevilla-Cruz said in an email while it’s hard to not feel like a cog in a big machine, especially when family businesses are closing but Chipotle stays open to make money, he still feels like his job is essential and makes a difference. 

“When I look at the people I’m serving, the people that are delivering and exposing themselves even more than me, it’s worth it,” Sevilla-Cruz said. “Seeing the look on people’s faces when, even if their lives have been turned upside down, they can still have their chicken bowl and side tortilla makes me think that I am essential to keeping people alive.”

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