Some essential workers could make more on unemployment. They're still on the job.

Kristan Obeng
Lansing State Journal
"The company has been great, we've got masks and gloves, and have protective barriers at checkout lanes," Charlotte Argento says Monday, April 27, 2020, while on her shift at Family Dollar in Lansing.  "People need to know though that they're putting others at risk by not wearing masks, or getting too close to people," the mother of four said.

If Ashley Toomey had a choice, she wouldn’t be an essential worker.

Staying home would reduce her chance of exposing her children to COVID-19, but both she and her husband, Antonio, need to work to take care of their family.

She works as a line cook for Red Robin, where her hours were reduced from 40 to 25 a week. Antonio works for the Meijer warehouse as a driver.

The restaurant switched to curbside pick up and implemented strict cleaning and hand-washing measures, she said. She worries more about Antonio, who constantly interacts with other drivers from all over the state.

“We can’t afford to lose our jobs,” she said. “Now (unemployed) people are getting more money than I make in a week. I get $400 for two weeks.”

Lansing-area residents still working during the pandemic face a catch-22.

If they quit their jobs, they don’t qualify for enhanced unemployment benefits of up to $962 a week. If they continue working, they risk interacting with people who may not be complying with federal health guidelines. 

Enhanced unemployment benefits sound good in theory to some. But the thought of being unemployed concerns Charlotte Argento, who has worked at Family Dollar on North Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. for five months.

“Some people like my husband can’t get unemployment benefits. He can’t get through the system,” Argento said. “He has been laid off since March, so it’s just my income. If my store was considered not essential, we wouldn’t have any money coming in. We have four kids.”

‘I’d stay home if I could’

Being considered essential during a pandemic is not a perk for Elizabeth Hernandez.

“I’m scared because people don’t practice social distancing,” said Hernandez, a meat clerk at Meijer on West Saginaw Highway in Delta Township. “Many customers congregate around the meat. Only a few step back, and not everyone wears a mask. I’d feel better if less customers were in the store.”

Elizabeth Hernandez, a meat clerk at Meijer.

Meijer along with several other retail stores have reduced the number of people allowed inside their stores based on square footage, but Hernandez believes those measures are not enough.

She constantly sees regular customers roaming around the store for no reason, she said, and believes more aisles should be roped off. Her fears increased after hearing that coworkers had contracted COVID-19.

A request for comment from Meijer’s spokespeople wasn’t immediately returned.

“I told my sister I was so angry about people protesting the governor’s stay-home order (last week),” Hernandez said. “So many people were in the store around that time. Many had also brought their kids.”

OPERATION GRIDLOCK: Thousands converge to protest stay-home order

“I’d stay home if I could,” Hernandez added. “They won’t lay us off or close the store. It’s without pay and voluntary if we want to take time off.”

‘It’s the customers who don’t take this seriously’

Charlotte Argento has been confronted by more than one customer.

They get upset when she tells them they can’t return items that were taken outside the store.

Other times, they reach around the sneeze guards in front of the cash register to hand her something instead of sliding the item under the guard like they’re supposed to.

“This shows people aren’t taking the pandemic seriously,” she said.

EXPOSURE RISKS: The wages are low for Lansing retail workers.

Argento, too, said she's seen a large number of customers not following guidelines from the state or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“No one is staying home,” Argento said. “We’ve made more in sales since (the pandemic) started than around Christmas and Thanksgiving. And 90% of what people are buying is nonessential items like toys and clothes. Some people need clothes, but if you’re spending $100 on clothes, I think that can wait.”

With no one stationed at the door to handle crowd control, Argento has seen more than the 36 people allowed in the store at one time.

“More often than not, you can’t count everyone,” Argento said. “We are at the register and can’t monitor everyone.”

The company told them to put signs up, telling customers they can't enter the store without a mask, she said, but lots of people are ignoring the signs. 

Argento loves her job, she said. She believes her supervisors are doing the best they can while following safety precautions.

But she is still worried.

“Everyone I work with is worried about their safety,” she said. “No one is wearing masks. All of my coworkers are taking this seriously. It’s the customers who don’t.”

‘They say they need us’

"Now hiring" advertisements populate local grocery stores, restaurants and billboards, but in some cases, essential workers are making less money than their unemployed counterparts.

Jaylon Pearson works as a package handler at FedEx, where he has gotten extra hours but not a raise to help handle more than 20,000 packages each day.

“Everyone is ordering from home,” Pearson said. “It would be more money from unemployment benefits. But they say they need us.”

Some essential workers are receiving expanded pay.

Direct-care workers providing Medicaid-funded in-home behavioral health and long-term care services are getting a temporary raise increase of $2 per hour from April to June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement on Thursday.

“It is our duty as Michiganders to ensure these front-line heroes have the financial support they need to continue doing their critical work while caring for themselves and their families,” Whitmer said.

Contact LSJ reporter Kristan Obeng at or 517-267-1344. Follow her on Twitter @KrissyObeng.

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