CHICAGO — As the city doles out coronavirus shots to seniors and frontline workers, some people who have public-facing jobs are confused as to why they’re being excluded.
During Phase 1B of the city’s vaccination campaign, people 65 and older; frontline workers, like grocery store employees and teachers; and health care workers are eligible for the vaccines.
But other people who have had to work in person and handle customers will have to wait longer for doses.
Librarians, backed by a number of progressive aldermen, have made a push to be included in Phase 1B of the city’s vaccination campaign. They argue they’ve been expected to work in person since June, but they’re not slated to get vaccinated until appointments open to other essential workers in Phase 1C, expected to begin March 29.
And people in the beauty industry have said they should be prioritized, too, since they have to interact closely with people and often can’t work from home. But they’re not eligible for vaccinations until the city moves into Phase 2 and opens appointments to all Chicagoans, expected to start May 31.
One Chicago librarian, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said exclusion from the vaccination group makes her feel like the city doesn’t care about the hundreds of librarians who have been working in person since June with sub-par safety conditions.
“It makes me and my coworkers feel worthless,” she said. “I kind of feel like [the city] is saying our jobs are essential, but we are not. It’s almost unbelievable since we have been working face-to-face with the public for months and we are not in 1B.”
But city officials — pressured from a number of sides to add more people to 1B — have said there simply aren’t enough doses to open 1B up to even more people.
Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has said adding more people to 1B would slow down the city’s efforts to vaccinate older people, who are most at risk from COVID-19. Just one in six Chicagoans 65 and older have been vaccinated so far.
More than 360,000 Chicagoans who are 65 or older and more than 350,000 frontline workers are eligible to be vaccinated during Phase 1B, the current phase of the city’s vaccination campaign. There are also tens of thousands of health care workers left over from Phase 1A who need to be vaccinated.
But the city receives fewer than 40,000 doses of vaccine per week. Appointments are extremely rare — and open ones are snapped up quickly.
‘Every Day Feels Risky’
Libraries were closed during the start of the pandemic, in the spring and early summer. They reopened with safety precautions in June — but librarians are still seeing people daily and those guests don’t always follow protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Mark Kaplan, an Uptown librarian and manager for more than 26 years, said being vaccinated would help him and his colleagues feel safer at work.
“The staff is demoralized and scared, and every day feels risky,” Kaplan said at a virtual news conference earlier this month. “I’m not alone in my fear of bringing the virus home to my family.”
Some aldermen are pushing for librarians to be given greater priority. Six Illinois counties have designated their library employees as frontline workers, and they have already started getting vaccinated, according to the Illinois Library Association.
“Our libraries have been an indispensable resource during the pandemic,” Ald. Matt Martin (47th) said at the news conference. “Library staff have also worked extremely hard to adapt to the new life. Given the regular public-facing nature of this work, it’s critical they have access to the vaccine.”
Alds. Daniel La Spata (1st), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and Maria Hadden (49th) also support moving library workers up.
But Arwady told aldermen last week officials chose which city workers to prioritize in part based on what departments have had the highest COVID-19 case rates — and the libraries “have lower rates than people really in almost any other setting” among city workers.
Still, at the end of the hearing, Arwady told the aldermen she’ll “take a look” at their concerns about libraries and see if there’s a way to incorporate some of them into the city’s Protect Chicago Plus program, which focuses on getting vaccinations to communities hit hard by the pandemic.
If librarians aren’t moved to Phase 1B, aldermen and librarians want public library services scaled back to curbside services until their vaccinations are complete at the end of May. City leaders have refused to try such a program, according to AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents the roughly 900 city librarians.
The librarian Block Club spoke to said if curbside pickup is not an option, the city should invest in better protection at library branches.
Although Chicago Public Library branches installed face shields at checkouts, reduced the number of computers available for public use and require patrons to wear masks while inside, she said management should do more.
“Getting people to wear masks is such a headache … . People are not covering their nose,” she said. “I have been verbally assaulted for telling them to wear masks.”
‘We’re Being Left Out’
Workers in the beauty and grooming industry also feel overlooked in the vaccine discussion. They’re not expected to be vaccinated until the campaign opens to all Chicagoans at the start of summer.
Bobby Price, owner and barber at Principle Barbers in North Lawndale, sees at least 10 people per day. North Lawndale has been hit so hard by the pandemic that it’s one of the neighborhoods being targeted by the city’s Protect Chicago Plus program — but he’s months from getting a vaccine.
While Price understands some people view his work as a luxury, he said he feels like his work is essential since beauty industry workers receive professional education and are required to be licensed and qualified in the eyes of the state. That should qualify them to be vaccinated early, he said.
Price’s workspace is wide enough to accommodate two air filters, but he said he would still feel safer if he was vaccinated. It would also relieve tension between him and his clients, he said, and make them feel safer coming to his shop.
“A barber is a public service, and we had to take steps to make sure we are qualified and certified to touch people and their faces and hair,” Price said. “The public relies on us to be responsible in that way, so if the state requires us to go through their filters we should be under that umbrella of” 1B.
Jessie Scheele, a hairstylist at Twisted Scissors in Logan Square, said it’s confusing that she and her coworkers aren’t considered essential workers when beauty shops are still open, hairstylists cannot work from home and they’re at higher risk because they are in close contact with people.
Scheele said hairstylists want equal vaccination consideration to others who perform public-facing services. And she thinks being vaccinated would help during a time when many small businesses are struggling with little financial relief from the government.
“I’m offended and upset [the city] didn’t include us in” 1B or 1C, Scheele said. “As an industry, we are overlooked by the city and government. Even with the first shutdown, we didn’t get talked about for a month. We’re being left out.”
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.
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.