Whether they worked in retail or in a bank, fixed cars or delivered food, the lives of essential workers experienced hard times and stressful days during the coronavirus pandemic.

This story also appeared in Shaw Media

For Judy Jendro at the Coffee Drop Shop, 227 S. Third St., Geneva, one of the Berry House stores, she works alone these days.

The specialty shop is in its 40th year and features about 60 coffees and more than 200 varieties of tea and all the things that go with them – brew systems and grinders, teapots and mugs. It used to have lots of people milling about, checking out coffees and teas.

Now the virus has kept most of them away.

“What it’s like? It’s hard, when you’re used to seeing people,” Jendro said. “I see one or two customers. Some people will wait in the hallway until one or two other customers leaves. And they all wear masks.”

Jendro said she has a core of regular customers who put in an order, pay for it, and she runs it outside to pop it into their trunk.

Even people who live a mile away prefer their coffees and teas be delivered, she said.

“I have customers who are loyal to me and have kept me going even through the bad times,” Jendro said. “It’s been difficult, but I understand everybody’s concerned, a little scared. But I’m still here to answer questions for people who don’t know anything about tea or coffee.”

Running store retailer

Then there’s Geneva Running Outfitters, 221 W. State St., Geneva, that has just been devastated by the pandemic.

Bill Ott, who co-owns the running shop with his son, said they used to have four and a half employees, and then when the pandemic started, they went down to two employees and two and a half part-time workers.

Now it’s just Ott and his son.

“I open and he closes,” Ott said.

What really hurt is when the Governor shut things down for three months.

“We were going to houses delivering shoes. We’d bring you four pairs to try on and you’d call me the next day to say one worked or I need some more and we’d square up. We did that for three months – it helped pay the rent,” Ott said.

These days, they ask customers to call ahead so they can plan their day and know how many shoes they might need, Ott said.

Another big hurt is the lack of marathons and local 5K and 10K runs, he said.

“When big marathons don’t happen – that’s a tough one,” Ott said.

Stores like his hook up with sock and shoe manufacturers connected to marathons – and to the runners who buy their products.

“That avenue of revenue is gone,” Ott said. “I would say all traditional avenues of revenue were really hit hard.”

They’ve applied for grants, looking for anything that will help.

“We don’t know how it’s going to be this Christmas,” Ott said. “We’ll see. We’ve purchased some items we went out on a limb on, so hopefully, we can sell them. They’re larger ticket items like massagers for your feet, your legs … you don’t even have to be a runner for that.”

A pharmacist

Tim Riley at Riley Drug, 415 W. State St., Geneva, said dealing with the pandemic as an essential worker has its challenges.

“When everything was shut down, we still filled the same number of prescriptions,” Riley said. “We did a lot of curbside and deliveries increased quite a bit as well, too.”

Pharmacist Tim Riley at Riley Drugs in Geneva. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Local

Prescriptions were reduced in other ways when people were not going in for elective surgeries or procedures like colonoscopies.

“We come in contact with many people throughout the day and we take precautions,” Riley said. “And we try to accommodate people so they don’t have to come into the store – which is safer for them and safer for us, too.”

A banker

Dan Chanzit, a 3rd Ward Alderman in Batavia, also a banker with BMO Harris, described a company that quickly repurposed its workforce after the March shutdown.

“We closed our doors, but we still had all these customers we needed to help,” Chanzit said.

BMO Harris set employees up in a call center hub in Roselle with headsets and queuing programs, Chanzit said.

“We would take 20 to 40 calls a day, sometimes as high as 50 calls a day,” Chanzit said.

He helped people open up new accounts, refinance loans or get emergency access to their home equity.

BMO Harris gave employees stipends and encouraged them to take care of themselves to reduce stress – so they could come to work healthy, Chanzit said.

Dan Chanzit Shaw Local

“We had all this great equipment and training in a very short time, town hall meetings – remotely – where they were constantly telling us what the game plan was. … I was never afraid to come to work. … I cannot stress this enough (that) I am so lucky to work for a company like this to put employees and customers first.”

He’s been back in his branch in Carol Stream since June. He wears a mask all day and all the customers wear masks.

“Everybody has been compliant,” Chanzit said. “I’ve heard a ton of horror stories from friends who work in retail or grocery stores and department stores, dealing with kicking out customers for not wearing masks. When people come to the bank, they understand, it’s important to mask up.”

A gas station employee

Working six days a week from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. at a BP gas station on Route 64, Dulce Vazquez balances many responsibilities.

In ten minutes the Chronicle stopped in for a brief interview Friday morning, Vazquez paused at times between conversation to step in at a cashier register for customers buying various items, sign off on inventory orders that were being brought in from supply trucks and also adding hot food items to the electronic heat rolling machine by herself.

Ensuring customers wear masks upon entry – on top of her normal responsibilities as a clerk – is a challenge.

“It’s been kind of hard because I’m not used to [weaing] the mask [all day],” Vazquez said on the challenges. “Sometimes, people [coming in] don’t want to wear their masks…it is kind of stressful.”

Vazquez previously worked at a hotel before being laid off due to issues relating to COVID-19 . Vazquez began her job at BP in September.

Vazquez worked on Thanksgiving and is planning on working on Christmas and New Years.

“Keep wearing your mask, keep your distance and [I try to] be patient with the people who don’t want to wear a mask,” Vazquez said. “It gets really crazy when you ask someone to wear a mask and [they object]. I don’t like to get [confrontational].”

Auto repair shop

Open since Aug. 2012, Theresa and Mark Shoup, owners of Trailside Auto Repair at 40W288 Wasco Road in Campton Hills, are “still the same people we were before this happened.”

Their regular work flow and routine of various car maintenance and repair – Oil changes, brakes, batteries, air conditioning and much more – has not overall changed much, beyond an internal increased focus in sanitation and customer safety by wearing facial masks.

“The only thing that’s changed is we’re really trying to sanitize things,” Theresa Shoup said. “…We only keep one pen out there every time a person comes in to pay for [work done] and has to sign for a credit card. We’re washing things down, washing up keys, washing up doorknobs and such because we want to keep everybody safe.”

Initially at the start of the pandemic, Trailside focused for about a month and a half on ‘specialty car’ work, ranging for vehicles made in the 1940s up to the 1990s.

Everyday civilian car work then began to pick up more consistently as the weeks progressed. Trailside continues to spend time educating customers on what is happening and why with their vehicles.

“We noticed that people had a lot of strange complaints, and a lot of times it’s related to the fact that they’re not driving their cars as much,” Theresa Shoup said. “Cars, as a general rule, don’t like to just sit there.”

“Sometimes, people don’t realize that…’Oh, I’ve got brake noise’ but it’s really just because we live in the midwest and rust is an issue here,” Shoup continued. “There would just be a build-up of rust on their rotars. So, we would just advise them to drive it a little bit and that would usually just fix it.”

The same, for example, can be applied to batteries that may not start as often.

Trailside had a “super busy summer” and is currently maintaining a “semi-normal” fall season. Car work, ultimately, somewhat hinges on what the weather brings.

“The bad stuff can hit anytime now. Then, it makes us busier, but I think we have a pretty good base of customers and somebody always needs something,” Shoup said. “It’s affected us in little ways, but again, it’s a weather thing.”

“Come January, we might have more battery failure as in ‘it doesn’t work anymore’ as opposed to just ‘They’re not driving it anymore.’”


This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

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It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.