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Coronavirus and the Paradox of Essential Work

In a small auditorium at St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families in Hyattsville, Md., 26-year-old Susana Chiang and I talk softly through our masks. Nearby is a well-loved plastic playhouse, where Ms. Chiang’s 4-year-old daughter is preparing us pretend food. She serves invisible ice cream and pasta with pepper and eggs. Children always seem taken with the essential vocations — food service, mail delivery, health care, parenthood — as though they’re born with a sense of what’s important in the world.

As her daughter plays, Ms. Chiang explains how she came to be at St. Ann’s, which offers shelter, counseling, education and child care to mothers and pregnant girls and women in crisis.

After completing four years of college without earning a degree, Ms. Chiang moved back in with her mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship. She got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts. It was “not what I thought I would be doing,” she said.

Ms. Chiang entered a “really unhealthy relationship.” And then she discovered that she was pregnant. Worn down and uncertain, she found her way to St. Ann’s, where she has lived for nearly five years, paying a small monthly fee (now waived during the pandemic) that has allowed her to save much of the rest of her money. It is the only home her daughter has ever known.

Ms. Chiang’s life stabilized at St. Ann’s. She earned a certification to work as a nursing assistant and began considering her prospects for a career. About two years ago, she got a job as a teaching aide at a Montessori school. Ms. Chiang loves her work. “Kids meet us where we are,” she said. “They’re always living in the present moment. They’re really grateful.”

When schools closed down in mid-March, Ms. Chiang was furloughed. She applied for unemployment benefits but received a notification that she was ineligible, without a clear explanation as to why. With no income, she began spending the money she has saved during her time at St. Ann’s. “It’s been stressful,” she said.

Ms. Chiang has poured herself into her online teaching certification program. She volunteered on a couple of occasions to babysit the children of other residents of St. Ann’s as they worked their essential jobs. St. Ann’s is home to women who work in nursing homes, grocery stores and big-box stores — employment considered, even under coronavirus-related restrictions, necessary to the functioning of civil society. These workers are now widely recognized as essential, but their compensation, benefits and status in society hardly reflect how critical they are.

Lazett Henry, 25, is one such worker. When she arrived at St. Ann’s four years ago, she had just lost her job, apartment and car because of domestic violence. “I was going through a lot mentally and emotionally,” she told me. “I was very dependent upon him, so when things went bad, it took a toll on me.”

At St. Ann’s, she was able to regain a steadier emotional footing and to go back to work as a certified nursing assistant at a local urgent care center.

“We’re all scared at my job,” she said. “We don’t know where the virus is or who has it.”

The staff at St. Ann’s is concerned as well, but there was never any discussion of turning essential-worker residents away. “We never call ourselves a shelter,” said Sister Mary Bader, the center’s chief executive officer. “We call ourselves a program. Shelter has connotations of a dormlike setting, bedbugs, anything but a home. But this is home.”

ImageSister Mary Bader, the C.E.O. of St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families.
Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

St. Ann’s offers several programs, including child care, therapy, career counseling, tutoring, and classes on parenting and life skills. Since the pandemic began, the center’s board of directors has also funded twice-weekly meals for all the families — Chinese takeout or pizza.

Sister Mary strives for touches like that — things that are personal and loving but not overbearing or condescending. Part of St. Ann’s mission is to help mothers back onto their feet materially, but there’s another aspect, too: Celebrating “their human worth and their dignity,” Sister Mary said, “that’s part of the mission.”

Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

It’s necessary work. The virus has revealed a paradox at the core of American life: The people whose work we rely on the most often have the least to show for it. “You’re starting to see the need times 10,” Shaneen Alvarez, director of clinical and social work services at St. Ann’s, told me. “Some of these families started out with very little; now they have nothing. It’s exacerbating the challenges that they had before this.”

But the women of St. Ann’s remain hopeful and dedicated. “When I got here,” Ms. Chiang tells me, “there were all these people around me who wanted to support me. I’d never had that before. I started — doing things, you know?”

She still suffers from anxiety, intensified by the pandemic, and from self-doubt. It isn’t easy to be a single parent at any time, much less during the coronavirus. “Sometimes I wonder: Did I make the right choice?,” she says. Ms. Chiang’s daughter darts up for a hug. “But she’s thriving all the time, and she makes me so happy. I’m just so grateful that there was a place like this.”

Ms. Henry feels the same. “I’m very proud of myself,” she says, as her two sons chase each other, laughing, around the playhouse in the auditorium. “I’m in school, I’m working, and I’m stable. That was the lowest point in my life, and now I’ve come so far.”

Sister Mary acknowledges that since her organization is run largely on donations, the economic downturn has her concerned about the center’s finances and those of the mothers who live here. “But no one’s going to tell them that they’re going to be leaving,” she adds. “They can stay here until whatever has become unstable in their lives is back on track.”

Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.

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Source: NY times

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