24 hours in the life of American workers

To pay the bills, they must go to work. And theirs is work that cannot

To pay the bills, they must go to work. And theirs is work that cannot be done from the confines of home, distanced by email and Zoom meetings from the deadly dangers of the coronavirus.

A trucker waiting on his load for another cross-country haul. A public defender meeting with a client in a dingy courthouse holding room. The owner of a small hardware store trying to make sure customers mask up as they walk in.

The stark reality is that the pandemic has put millions of American workers at risk in ways that few could have imagined just seven months ago. The fallout has revealed an economy and labor force sharply divided along lines of race, class and privilege.

Workers who are able to do their jobs remotely are almost twice as likely to be White as Black or Hispanic, according to recent studies. They also are far more likely to be highly educated and well-off. Only 18 percent of people from households with incomes less than $50,000 were able to work from home this spring, compared to 45 percent of those from households making more than $100,000, and the gap remains significant despite a big increase since then in the number of Americans working remotely.

Access to paid sick leave is typically unavailable for about 1 in 4 workers — a testament to shortcomings of the U.S. labor market and one that has drawn renewed focus now that tens of thousands of people have been infected on the job. Yet confusing public health recommendations, lax government enforcement and a polarized political environment have slowed many companies’ response, even as the business lobby helped beat back attempts to provide workers with greater protections.

Early in the pandemic, the lionizing of hospital and supermarket workers obscured the scores of men and women on different front lines. This is a look at 24 hours in the life of some of those other individuals, on a routine Tuesday in September in a world in which so much remains far from routine.

In Davis, Calif., there was Khadija Zridi, half of a husband-wife team now delivering restaurant orders for DoorDash. In Omaha, Eric Reeder was heading back into a meatpacking plant because his position as a union official means he worries 24/7 about conditions there.

None of the 10 workers who were part of the day think of themselves as heroes. They say they’re simply doing what they must — showing up despite concerns about safety, showing up because of expenses and financial pressures, showing up out of a sense of commitment, even mission.

“I don’t want to die of this,” Reeder says, “but, unfortunately, meatpacking workers have to go to work. And if I don’t go to work, people don’t get represented.”

— Eli Rosenberg

September is pollock season, and if conditions were good, Kayla Cox would be headed to Fippennies Ledge in this predawn mist for a day of fishing. But for the second time in history, five tropical storms are swirling in the Atlantic, causing eight-foot swells in the Gulf of Maine.

So instead of dropping hooks and lines to catch the groundfish that feed New England Fishmongers’ customers, Cox preps for a future journey, checking tackle boxes and inserting rods and reels into holders along the Finlander’s gunwale. Once done, 200 pounds of Alaskan coho salmon need filleting. Light has yet to pierce the sky as she and Tim Rider, her partner in life and work, drive to their processing facility.

The demands are relentless. Only hours ago, after filleting more than 1,000 pounds of coho, the pair had finally finished delivering the last of that bounty, on a loop that had taken them to homes across three states. A few weeks before, they’d hauled 6,000 pounds of frozen pollock and scallops to Illinois for Midwest distribution.

“Who else would do it?” Cox asks.

DOVER, NH - SEPTEMBER 15: Kayla Cox of New England Fishmongers, starts filleting 200 pounds of Alaskan Coho salmon with Captain Tim Rider, her partner in life and work at their processing facility in Dover, NH, on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
DOVER, NH - SEPTEMBER 15: Kayla Cox and Captain Tim Rider, her partner in life and work of New England Fishmongers, drink coffee and discuss the delivery and market schedule on a paper calendar during a break after filleting 200 pounds of Alaskan coho salmon at their processing facility in Dover, NH, on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

In between runs like these, they sell fish out of their vans at farmers markets and specialty produce shops. To supplement their catch, they drive to Cape Cod for scallops and to the airport in Boston for Northwest salmon less than a day out of the ocean. A handful of staff members assist, but, for the most part, the success of New England Fishmongers rests with Cox and Rider.

Yet they feel grateful. Grateful that they eke out an income during a pandemic when so many others don’t. Grateful that they pivoted to selling directly to consumers a year before the coronavirus struck. Had they remained reliant on restaurant sales — the focus when Fishmongers began in 2015 — they would be among the thousands in their world struggling for survival.

They were fishing and without cellphone service that day in March when state officials announced a shutdown. As they pulled up to the pier, their phones exploded with calls from customers ordering 10, 20, 30 pounds of fish. Cox remembers shaking her head and wondering how they would deliver that much to hundreds of people. They were set up for weekend markets, not UPS-like drop-offs.

Those early weeks remain a blur of calling, cataloguing, invoicing and driving, changing gloves at every stop, wiping down every cooler left outside a door. Cox eventually created an online store, which simplified the logistics. “But it is not perfect,” she says.

At their processing facility across the New Hampshire line in Dover, Cox slips on orange rubber bib overalls. She flips her long brown ponytail behind her back, pulls her fingers through blue gloves, picks up a knife and begins. Slice fillets into chunks. Weigh each chunk. Note weight on label. Slide chunk into plastic bag. Vacuum seal the bag. Salmon, then black sea bass. All must be finished today.

At 25, Cox could be rested and dry as an environmental consultant, her first job out of college. But summers spent baiting traps on a lobster boat connected her to the sea, and despite the challenges of being female in a male-dominated industry, she has learned to ignore the taunts, to concentrate on product supply and sales. Not easy in any scenario, because so many factors — weather, permits, warming water — are out of her control. Then add the pandemic, mandatory masks, constant disinfecting and hand-washing.

If either Rider or Cox fell ill, Fishmongers would collapse. Without him, the boat wouldn’t leave the pier. Without her, there’d be no deliveries, markets or social media promotion.

Before the black sea bass, Cox needs a break. She removes her overalls and marches to the office in back where she brews an espresso, then sits down at the desk. Coffee in one hand, she plots the week’s distribution and market schedule on a paper calendar. Those she can control.

— Story by Sue Hertz

— Photos by Salwan Georges

David Billman stands by the cashier’s counter in his still-dark store, reminding the four morning-shift employees that every customer needs to wear a mask while shopping. Local health inspectors have been making surprise checks in the area, he says. Violations could mean fines.

With that and his other marching orders, the team is ready. Billman heads down an aisle with wire strippers and electrical sockets, rounds the corner at the key-making station, finally stopping in the warehouse in back. He flips 10 switches on the circuit-breaker board and brings up 100 lights, commencing another day at Clinton Do It Best Hardware — the business that has been in his family for 57 years and where he has worked since he was 15.

For much of the pandemic, Billman has alternately felt confused, scared, lucky. And this week, guilty.

He has been thinking about the two women who run the nail salon down the road, who are struggling to recover from several months of lost revenue during the spring’s mandated shutdown. There’s also the friend who repairs musical instruments; shuttered schools have meant no music classes, so no trumpets, guitars and drums to fix. Billman saw him recently and told him to hang in there. When his friend asked about the store, Billman avoided specifics.

We’re surviving, he replied.

Yet with surging demand for lawn fertilizer, hoses, sprinklers, vegetable seeds, Mason jars, gopher traps and paint products, business is actually flourishing.

“You feel embarrassed, because you’re doing so well and they’re struggling,” he says. He knows that things just as easily could have gone the other direction, had hardware stores not been deemed essential and remote workers and people with a sudden excess of free time not developed an appetite for gardening and DIY projects.

CLINTON MD - SEPTEMBER 15 David Billman and employee Rosa Smith, left, wait for customers at his hardware store in Clinton, Maryland on September 15, 2020. Billman, the owner and manager of Clinton Hardware, has seen buyers' tastes change as a result of the pandemic. He is having a hard time keeping canning and gardening supplies on the shelf or even getting them restocked. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Orders should start arriving this morning within the hour. Billman’s office is on the second floor — with photos of three generations of shop owners, his great-grandfather, grandfather and father, on the wall — but he thinks it’s important right now to be out front with his employees. He worries about the health risks for them and their families. One has a grandmother in her 90s. Another has two young daughters. He switched one of his oldest workers, who has a lung disease, to after-hours shifts to help protect him.

These aren’t random concerns. Billman was here the day a customer came through checkout with picture hangers and a hacking cough. Everyone at the counter froze, eyes widening above their masks. The woman realized what they were thinking — just allergies, she insisted.

Still, after the clerks hurried her through the line, they rerouted the other shoppers to a different register, rang up all the purchases and closed the store. They wiped down the counter, the credit card reader, the entire shelf of picture hangers. They sprayed disinfectant in the air. They washed their hands and replaced their masks.

“You don’t want to take a chance,” says Billman, who is 53. His mother-in-law lives with him and his wife, Belinda, and every night when the couple get home, they disinfect their shoes and take a shower before telling her hello.

A man walks up and asks where lawn spreaders are. Billman chats with him, then escorts him to that section, part of his strategy to get people in and out as rapidly as possible. He describes the different models’ features. The man opts for a red Chapin priced at $89.99.

Billman wheels it to the back and adds air to the tires as the customer pays, then meets him in the parking lot and loads the spreader into his truck.

He walks back toward Do It Best’s double doors. The biggest shipment he’s expecting will take well into the afternoon to unpack and shelve, a combination of plumbing supplies, furnace filters and garden tools. He greets a shopper on her way out.

“Thanks, ma’am,” Billman says. “Have a good day.”

— Story by V. Dion Haynes

— Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez

She usually gets to court early. So Meigan Thompson is already working at the defense table when sheriff’s deputies lead in one of her clients, his wrists bound with neon-yellow handcuffs that link him chain-gang-style to four other Black men.

It is a familiar scene for the 39-year-old public defender, sometimes the only Black lawyer in the courtroom at the Shelby County Justice Center in Memphis. The imposing, bleak-beige concrete building, which houses both the jail and the criminal courts, is known as “201” for its address on Poplar Avenue, at the corner of B.B. King Boulevard.

Everyone has heard that 201 is rife with the coronavirus. Hundreds of pretrial detainees and jail employees have tested positive. One jail deputy died.

The building has justice in its name. But for Thompson, it feels more like a place where the system stacks the odds against her clients. Many haven’t been convicted of anything but face indefinite custody because they can’t afford bail.

“It’s always a struggle to get the courts and public to believe and trust in the goodness and value of the people we represent,” she says, “despite the accusations levied against them.”

Her 18-year-old client this morning is charged with armed robbery and assault during an attempted carjacking. He missed his last court date because he was quarantined after being exposed to the virus in jail, and Thompson wants to get him out, away from more risk. But his two minutes before the judge today aren’t the right time to ask for bail. He will have to wait.

She has five minutes alone with him to explain what comes next. They confer in a dingy holding room off the fifth-floor courtroom, where the teenager sits handcuffed to the wall — the only location they can meet privately and in person.

MEMPHIS, TN - September 15, 2020: Meigan Thompson, a public defender with the Shelby County Public Defender, walks into the jail to visit a client. 


Then Thompson packs up her laptop, adjusts her patterned mask and heads to the basement to see a client who’s out on bond.

She tries to limit her time in court because the setting can weigh on her. She’s keenly aware of the historical precedents that connect her and her clients to this moment and this place. Only three blocks south of 201 is the spot where slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest once sold Black people whom he held captive in his private jail. He went on to become a Confederate general and later the founding grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. During the Jim Crow era, the KKK targeted her grandmother’s family, causing them to flee North Carolina for California.

Thompson grew up in Pasadena but moved to the South to attend Spelman College. After graduating, she worked in Mississippi in a juvenile justice program with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which inspired her to go to law school. She came to Memphis through an initiative that places select law school graduates in public defender offices nationwide. It aims to help change the culture of criminal justice.

That mission seems to her like a calling, especially now, especially in a majority-Black Southern city with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates. “I’m not doing charity work,” she says with a mix of gentleness and lawyerly resolve. “This has a bigger purpose for me.”

She views her clients as more than just the crimes they’re accused of committing. They come her way because they cannot afford legal counsel, and this spring she created an online narrative called the Humanity Project, based on interviews with them about their lives. Not long after, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests, her mother sent her a one-sentence text from California: “I’m so glad you’re not a prosecutor.”

It’s barely midmorning as Thompson continues her trek through 201, stopping by her office on the second floor to drop off files and make a call. At 10:35, she ventures into the jail. She needs to talk strategy with two more clients.

— Story by Emily Yellin

— Photos by Andrea Morales

Rick Chapman leans against the cab of his Peterbilt 579 — a bobtail, truckers call it when no trailer is attached. The yard around him vibrates from a fleet of idling diesel motors and the highway just over the fence, one strand in the knot of interstates south of Chicago that make it a trucking hub. The paperwork for Chapman’s next cross-country load isn’t here yet, but he’s in no hurry.

He already has been on the road for weeks, with more to come. He looks in his cab for his noon meds. “There you are,” he says, grabbing the pills he takes for his diabetes. He washes them down with a Bang energy drink.

As much as any place, this cab is home.

When the coronavirus hit, Chapman, 46, was anxious about carrying it back to loved ones: to his longtime girlfriend and her three kids in Arizona, to his father and an ill brother in California.

So since spring, he has stayed away a month or more at a stretch, living in a space that measures 6 feet by 7 feet and includes a microwave, refrigerator and electric cooler that he bungee-corded into his passenger seat. He sleeps well — better than at home, actually — on a mattress fitted with superhero sheets from his girlfriend’s house. Whenever he’s within 14 days of seeing family members, he avoids truck stops, restaurants and grocery stores as much as possible and uses hand sanitizer like crazy.

Yet he thinks the virus is overhyped and he has doubts about masks. Even with diabetes, he pulls up his neck sock only when required, mostly because he doesn’t want to get into a fight.

Despite the long absences, the road suits Chapman. He had been an electrician until the company he worked for lost all its contracts during the Great Recession and he enrolled in truck driving school, immediately taking to his new life. He ditched the CB radio, though, because all he heard was racism and people talking smack.

JKC Trucking put him in a new Peterbilt about a year ago, and he feels well paid at 55 cents for each of the 144,826 miles he has put on it. He usually makes in the mid-$60,000 range and may do even better this year. He kept rolling through the worst of the pandemic shutdowns, often heading toward the West Coast with frozen meat, then returning to Chicago loaded with fresh tomatoes, avocados and other produce.

“It’s not that I’m a hero, but it’s like a duty,” he says. “You pretty much give up a normal life to be on the road.”

Those miles finally got to his girlfriend, and after more than a decade, they broke up in August. He blames lots of things, but one was that he was gone so often. Days later, his brother died in Escondido, leaving his father alone in the apartment Chapman pays for. He figures he’ll stay out until late October, then move in with his dad.

SUMMIT, IL - SEPTEMBER 15: Rick Chapman, a truck driver for JKC Trucking smokes a cigarette as he waits to receive his load of beef at the JKC loading truck lot on Tuesday, September 15, 2020 in Summit, Illinois. Chapman who has been a truck driver for 14 years will haul thousands of pounds of beef to Atlanta, Georgia and Miami Beach, Florida. Photo by Joshua Lott for The Washington Post

The paperwork for his load arrives, and he pulls it from the envelope. “I’m hauling wieners,” he says.

He has 46 hours to transport 23,508 pounds of all-beef franks to Georgia, then one more day to take 15,600 more pounds to Florida.

Chapman knows from experience that it is only 10 hours and 58 minutes to the Georgia stop, just under the 11 hours of driving time federal regulations allow per duty period. He looks at his watch and cocks his head toward the highway. Midday traffic around Chicago is a nightmare. For now, he will wait.

A driver from a nearby restaurant finds truck 1240 rumbling in the yard and delivers spaghetti (extra sauce) and a salad. Chapman eats on his bed.

The pasta knocks him out, overwhelming his metabolism and the energy drink. On his “Guardians of the Galaxy” sheets, he falls hard into sleep.

— Story by Peter Kendall

— Photos by Joshua Lott

Hundreds of men and women work on the kill floor of the JBS plant in Omaha, their smocks soaked in blood as they slaughter, butcher and package America’s beef. These days, the signs around them stress, “All Team Members Required to Wear a Mask” and “Social Distancing Required,” and it is Eric Reeder’s job to make sure the company does its part. On a hot afternoon, he signs in at the plant’s north security booth. He proceeds to a white tent, passes through a full-body temperature check, and walks into the plant to hear workers’ worries and complaints.

“I’ve been union my whole life,” Reeder says. But when he was elected president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293 last fall, he was focused on traditional safety concerns: repetitive-stress injuries, painful cuts from fast line speeds. The local covers 13 facilities across southeastern Nebraska, a part of the state that supplies McDonald’s hamburgers, Smithfield bacon and Costco rotisserie chickens to much of the country.

He’d barely settled into his new position when he was notified in late March about a coronavirus case at the JBS plant a couple of hours west in Grand Island, then another at the Smithfield pork plant in the small town of Crete. Cases quickly jumped from a few to a few hundred. Smithfield announced that it would idle its plant for a deep cleaning and quarantine, only to reverse course the next day. The following evening, President Trump issued an executive order declaring meatpacking plants essential operations, forcing them to stay open.

Reeder was inundated with calls from terrified workers. They were standing shoulder to shoulder on the line but had few masks or face shields. Most production never slowed, and cases kept increasing. Every time he entered a plant, Reeder wondered about his own exposure. He would go home late, showering immediately to minimize his girlfriend’s risk and wear a mask until he got in bed — in a separate room.

Six months later, it’s still how each day ends. “That’s the way it has to be,” he says. “We have a routine in order to keep her safe from me.”

Reeder, 56, has no idea when things will change. He’s up at 5 a.m., six days a week. He averages about 200 miles a day in his car, driving to plants, hearing employee complaints, talking to managers, filing grievances with companies and the National Labor Relations Board. He testified before the Nebraska legislature in August, warning that “these employers, unless they’re required to do something, won’t do it.” He’s still just as frustrated, but more and more, he’s just exhausted. Nearly 1,000 of his members have contracted covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. At least six have died.

OMAHA, NE - SEPTEMBER 15: Eric Reeder, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293, sits in his office on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)

Some plant visits last hours. Today, he heard no major complaints and so is in and out in 30 minutes. He exits the sprawling, low-slung plant, built on the very ground where the world’s largest stockyards once stood, checks his phone and sighs over the onslaught of emails. High-risk employees are facing corporate ultimatums: return to the line or risk termination. One company is asking how many will comply.

Back in his cramped, cinder-block office at the union hall, Reeder broods. The fluorescent lights deepen the dark circles under his eyes. Yesterday, he erupted over news that Trump’s executive order was largely written by meat industry lobbyists. Instead of mandating protection for workers, he says, the federal government colluded with industry to maintain profits. “It makes me angry as hell.”

He can’t dwell on it, though. There are messages to answer, grievances to file and a Zoom conference call with Joe Biden’s team, which has a big union outreach for November’s presidential election. If Reeder is lucky, he’ll get home tonight in time for a few minutes with his girlfriend before he turns out the light.

— Story by Ted Genoways

— Photos by Calla Kessler

There are disinfected rooms to inspect on the fourth floor and curtains to change in pediatrics, but Mariana Baldazo has a long hallway ahead of her first. She stands on the platform of an industrial scrubbing machine, steering it back and forth, back and forth, across shiny, beige linoleum.

So go her days as a custodial worker at University Hospital in San Antonio. A sense of sameness defines them, although since the pandemic hit hard here, little has felt the same. Every morning, when Baldazo, 47, starts her shift, the first thing she does is wheel large trash bins down to a compactor outside. Five bins this morning meant five trips past a refrigerator truck parked beside the compactor. It arrived over the summer to handle the overflow of covid-19 victims from the hospital morgue.

Nothing can diminish the bleakness of this situation: one where bodies are stored in a truck next to the trash. Some patients died alone, she knows. “You see those bodies, you pray. Then you just keep going, keep going.”

She prays frequently. During her 20-minute drive from San Antonio’s impoverished West Side, Baldazo turns the radio down for several minutes. In the quiet, she asks God to help her and her family, the doctors and nurses, their patients, her co-workers. Then she goes back to the music and searches for something upbeat. Today it was a song by MercyMe.

When friends and family members ask her about working in a hospital during a pandemic, she does not mention the truck. Instead, she talks about how thankful she is that she’s still employed and how the hospital’s strict protocols have kept her safe. She wears a mask for her entire shift, and she doesn’t stop to joke around with the desk clerks as often as before. Conversation in the elevators is discouraged, and only four people are allowed in at a time, on marked corner spots.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - SEPTEMBER 15: Mariana Baldazo, a custodial worker in charge of 16 floors at University Hospital in San Antonio, poses for a portrait as she she cleans a hallway as part of her runs daily duties at the hospital, in San Antonio, TX, on Tuesday, September 15, 2020.

Baldazo, a single mother with short-cropped black hair, makes about $30,000 a year, which never feels like quite enough for her and her 14-year-old daughter. They live in a small unit behind her parents’ house. She sleeps in the living room and lets her daughter have the single bedroom.

She never planned to work here. After graduating from high school, she was a custodian for the city’s school district for seven years. She stayed late to tutor kids, taking special interest in those who did not know much English. She hoped to become a teacher.

But things didn’t go as planned. Five years ago, she was in need of a job. Someone told her about a housekeeping position at the 700-bed public hospital. She took it.

Between doing her own floor work and making sure the two dozen employees she supervises on 16 floors are taking care of their rooms and bathrooms, she clocks about 25,000 steps per shift. Shortly before 4 p.m., she’s ready to put away her equipment for the day. She reaches for the heavy ring of keys she keeps in a pocket of her cargo pants. In another pocket is the small vial of nitroglycerin she carries because of a heart condition.

On really difficult days, Baldazo sits in her car during her lunch break, her stomach knotted, unable to eat. She recently started taking medication for anxiety. She has lost 12 pounds since March. She has gone to the ER four times. “I’ll see stars, I’m nauseated, I start sweating and shaking. Almost like I’m having a heart attack,” she says. Each time, after tests indicated nothing serious, she was sent home to rest.

College and a career change are both distant dreams now, as she focuses all her attention on her daughter. The teen is desperate to move into a bigger place, and Baldazo tries to temper her hopes without shattering them altogether.

“Mija, I know,” she tells her. “But things keep coming up.”

— Story by Sindya N. Bhanoo

— Photos by Brandon Thibodeaux

A balding man wearing a tan T-shirt but no mask leans past the Plexiglas divider and into Anthony Cowherd’s tiny information booth at Denver International Airport.

“How do I catch my 7 p.m. flight?” he demands.

Cowherd pushes his chair back, squints at the crumpled boarding pass that the man has thrust over the counter and points.

“Down this hall to security,” he replies. His voice is as polite as the traveler’s was rude. “Two stops on the train to the gate.”

Late afternoon sunlight filters through the Jeppesen Terminal’s peaked roof. All of it is Cowherd’s office, in a sense, and the thousands of people coming and going are his responsibility should they need help. The exposure puts his health on the line daily.

Early on in the pandemic, he shoved aside worries about getting sick and infecting his roommate’s 80-year-old mother, reporting to work and grateful that his 40-hour weeks as a customer service agent weren’t eliminated or even cut back.

With the number of travelers plummeting, he tried to stay busy and ignore the eerie quiet, concourses virtually empty, their concessions shuttered. He disinfected cabinets until the airport ran out of all its Lysol wipes — a commercial provider finally sent more — and restocked booths with pamphlets highlighting top tourist attractions. He participated in trainings on emergencies and cybersecurity, although after his 14 years at the airport, few details escape him.

DENVER, UNITED STATES - SEPT 15: Anthony Cowherd, Aviation Customer Service Lead Agent at Denver International Airport, poses outside the airport in Denver, United States on September 15, 2020. (Photo by Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post)

“The Oracle,” friends call him, a nod to his encyclopedic memory. Co-workers know him for his professional courtesy, plus his white peach cobbler.

Cowherd misses seeing the kids on their way back from an adventure, all smiles and Mickey Mouse ears askew. Growing up, he fell in love with travel while picnicking with family members at DuPage Airport in West Chicago. He drove a Goodwill truck for a while after moving to Denver in the early 1990s, adding shifts at McDonald’s to help cover the bills. By now, he feels as though the airport is home, and he recently was promoted to a lead agent position. The interaction with the public suits his temperament, he says. His mother always kidded him about his “gift of gab.”

Yet his own sojourns — visiting relatives in the Midwest, flying to Los Angeles to eat at a favorite Mexican restaurant — are on hold. He’s still hoping to go to Hawaii next year to celebrate his 50th birthday with friends.

As travel for others begins to pick back up, airports are among the few places where large indoor gatherings are unavoidable, strangers from all over crossing paths. Cowherd remains concerned about the risks and is newly anxious about finances.

The city of Denver, which runs the airport and issues his paycheck, is trying to bridge a $190 million budget gap. It has ordered some workers to take eight unpaid furlough days this year. Cowherd is spacing them out to ease the sting of a shrinking bank account. Even so, the furlough has put the brakes on his efforts to save enough to buy a townhouse in the suburbs.

His public face never shows his worries. As he walks through the airport, he seems to have a sixth sense for when someone needs assistance. He is again fielding plenty of questions, because a huge modernization project has much of the terminal torn up — exposed steel girders, wiring and temporary walls creating much confusion.

“Where’s the United ticket counter?”

“Where can I smoke?”

“How do I find my rental car?”

His job is to troubleshoot, provide directions, reassure. But masks make it harder to discern people’s moods, he has realized. He sits in the middle of the cavernous hall amid still-closed restaurants, bookstores, and other booths devoid of fellow transit and tourism agents. A nearby escalator groans. “Please don’t leave items unattended,” a recorded message blares.

Cowherd leans forward slightly to hear a petite, dark-haired woman whisper through her double masks:

“Where is the restroom?”

— Story by Jennifer Oldham

— Photos by Rachel Woolf

The flat tire isn’t the important thing, just a problem to be solved. A neighbor in the apartment complex helps, and now the midnight-blue minivan is heading toward downtown Davis, where most of the restaurants are. If Anouar takes a certain route, cutting through on 3rd Street to save a minute or so, he’ll drive past the place where he used to work.

“It’s El Patio,” his wife says, motioning to a corner storefront. The order is nearly ready for pickup, and Anouar knows the drill: He’ll leave Khadija at the entrance, then circle until she comes out with the food. He can practically time the circuit. In this little college-downtown grid, once around the block doesn’t take long to complete.

To succeed with DoorDash, drivers need to pay attention to the little things. The whole point is to deliver an order within roughly the amount of time the company’s app has estimated will be enough, because that helps to ensure happy customers, and happy customers may tip extra when their food arrives, adding to whatever they first included.

Technically, this is Khadija Zridi’s concern. But her work is a family enterprise. Since her husband, Mohamed Anouar Maskaoui, lost his job as a waiter when the Burgers & Brew restaurant over on 3rd went into a pandemic-induced shutdown, her DoorDash income has helped pay the rent. She still wishes she were home; she was happy caring for their young daughter, Alaa. But what she wishes right now isn’t the important thing.

When the couple won their green cards in a lottery in 2016, they felt God’s hand. “You are asking God to give you another possibility for life, for changing your future, for changing your children’s future, and no one can make his hand in this choice, just God,” Anouar says. He and his wife left Morocco to find the American Dream. Dallas didn’t work out. Chicago was too cold. Friends told them about Davis, and so they came, and then Alaa was born, a U.S. citizen.

Now, this.

Khadija Zridi, 32 and Mohamed Anouar Maskaoui, 42, moved to the States 4 years ago. When the pandemic started, Anouar lost his restaurant job and Khadija started working for DoorDash. The couple tag teams the work with their young daughter in tow. They make deliveries in Davis, Calif., on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. For the project “On their own: Amid the pandemic, a day in the life of American workers”
(Photo by Preston Gannaway/For The Washington Post)

The Mexican food delivery goes smoothly, not like a few nights earlier, when someone walked away with a Chipotle bag that had been Khadija’s to pick up, leaving her quietly frantic as she waited for a new meal.

Right now, many customers prefer that their order be left at their doorstep, but if they want it handed to them, Khadija does it. She is 32, Anouar, 42. Both keep their masks on and hand sanitizer close by. Alaa is always close by, too, fidgeting in her car seat as the van rolls from stop to stop.

DoorDash pays $2 to $10 per order, plus tips. The couple works part of most mornings, hitting the breakfast rush, and then three or four hours at night. Mondays are slow. The start of the month is slow.

Students are returning to the University of California campus here, “and that will be good,” Khadija says. Yet if their presence drives up the local coronavirus infection rate, then Yolo County will remain only partly open, and that will delay Anouar’s anticipated return to his job. He’d been working until midnight or later, collecting tips from these same college students.

As darkness pulls its shade across the sky, which at last carries only a hint of wildfire smoke, Alaa has had enough. She is tired of riding, and she becomes upset every time her mother walks out of sight to deliver an order. She is not quite 3, and is used to having Khadija near her.

The evening has been a bit of a bust. It’s only Tuesday, Khadija and Anouar remind themselves. The rest of the week will be better, and then Anouar will get called back to work, and then they will be back on track with their shared goals: to learn more, study more and open their own business.

Anyway, tonight isn’t the important thing. “The important thing,” he says, “is life.”

— Story by Mark Kreidler

— Photos by Preston Gannaway

Night cloaks the courtyard. Even the evergreens are still, although “quiet” is a word that Aushenae Matthews and her colleagues do not use here. Within this temporary home for domestic violence survivors, she explains, “if you say the q-word — it’s quiet — everybody knows you are jinxing the whole entire day.”

Matthews is the shelter lead at the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network, a haven in King County that operates 24/7. She debriefs staff members, helping them advocate for needs that can be filled — housing, employment, child care, court and doctor’s appointments. Together, they try to heal society. Matthews is just 22, but she has been promoted twice since being hired last year.

Women bear the brunt of economic and social pressures that have been intensifying during the pandemic. At this late hour, the crisis phone line is silent, allowing Matthews some rare moments to reflect. She regularly answers calls from emergency rooms and crime scenes where survivors huddle with nurses, police officers, social workers and mental health professionals. She takes action. “I am a Post-it person,” she says.

Too few beds means that only one in every 57 callers can be admitted into the women’s shelters scattered throughout this part of the county. Twenty people live here, including children. Committed to house rules meant to keep one another safe, no one has fallen ill from the coronavirus. Matthews and her colleagues, all of them women, give gentle mask reminders. They know that clients have fled homes with harsh rules.

A boy in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt walks into the kitchen for a snack; his is the only activity. The halls are hushed. The “moon room,” meant for meditation or hard conversations, is vacant. By day, DAWN’s corners hold hopeful distractions — shelves of books, a play kitchen, trikes. Its walls are decorated with colorful signs that younger residents paint in support groups.

Drem away from sadness

Drem away from pain

as if it had’t

happened and

you still had your

herart intact.

It sounds.

SOUTH KING COUNTY, WASH. - SEPTEMBER, 15: A childrenÕs tricycle at a Domestic Abuse WomenÕs Network shelter at an undisclosed location in South King County, Wash., on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo/For The Washington Post)

Matthews grew up in nearby Tacoma, one of three children raised by a single Latinx mother. As a girl, she wore her school uniform to bed so she could make it to class on time with her siblings. One of the first in her family to go to college, she studied criminal justice and psychology with White men planning to become police officers. “I was doing twice the work they were doing so I could get the same respect or grade. The only time I would see a reflection of me is when they were the domestic violence survivor.”

She sought to become DAWN’s legal advocate “to somehow flip the script.” On graduation day, while other students partied and went to celebratory dinners, she and her kinfolk packed up her apartment so she could start her new job.

In the 18 months since, she has siphoned trouble from the lives of women who, like her, have endured violence at the hands of relatives. As she drives home to her high school sweetheart, a social worker who helps foster kids, she always sings on the highway to ward off sorrow.

Most of her friends don’t get what she does. Her family has kept their distance because of the pandemic. “I have been feeling very isolated,” she says. At work, she touches a device on her wrist that tells her how to breathe through the stories she hears. In darkness, the trauma creeps back as sleep paralysis, grim visions unfurling in her subconscious.

Morning will fill this place of refuge with the crackle of bacon and the clank of pans. Coming up on midnight, Matthews stands watch in the kitchen, lulled by the refrain of six fridges. Their hum forms a chorus with the whoosh of passing cars, the drivers unaware that within this grove are women brave enough to dream of better lives.

— Story by Kristen Millares Young

— Photos by Jovelle Tamayo

About this project

Sindya N. Bhanoo is a health and science reporter based in Austin. She is a Knight-Wallace reporting fellow at the University of Michigan.

Michael Robinson Chavez is a Washington Post photographer and was part of The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of climate change in 2019.

Preston Gannaway is a Pulitzer Prize-winning documentary photographer and artist based in San Francisco whose work addresses such themes as gender identity and class.

Ted Genoways, a Knight-Wallace reporting fellow at the University of Michigan, is the author of two books about farming and the meatpacking industry.

Salwan Georges is a Washington Post photographer and was part of The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of climate change in 2019.

V. Dion Haynes is the real estate editor at The Washington Post, where has worked since 2005. He previously served as a staff writer and Capital Business managing editor.

Sue Hertz, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, is an author and freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of national and regional publications.

Peter Kendall is a journalist based in Chicago who writes about life in the Midwest.

Calla Kessler is a photographer based in New York City, although she frequently covers stories in her home state of Nebraska. She began her career as an intern for The Washington Post.

Mark Kreidler is a freelance journalist in California who specializes in health, sports and social justice issues. He has written three books.

Joshua Lott is a Chicago-based photojournalist at The Washington Post.

Andrea Morales is a documentary photographer based between Memphis and Oxford, Miss.

Jennifer Oldham is a freelance journalist and Colorado native whose reporting focuses on economic inequality, the environment, policy, politics and public lands.

Eli Rosenberg covers work and labor for The Washington Post. He joined The Post in 2017 after reporting in New York for a decade.

Brandon Thibodeaux is a photographer based in Houston who creates portraits in the documentary tradition. In addition to his assignments and commissions, he explores life in the American South.

Jovelle Tamayo is a Filipina American documentary photographer based in Seattle.

Rachel Woolf is a photographer specializing in storytelling through documentary photography and portraiture. She is based in Denver.

Emily Yellin is a journalist and author based in Memphis. She is producer of the video series “1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ‘68.”

Kristen Millares Young is the author of “Subduction,” a debut novel named a finalist for two International Latino Book Awards. She is based in Seattle.

Project development and editing by Susan Levine. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Graphics by Álvaro Valiño, graphics editing by Chiqui Esteban. Copy editing by Carrie Camillo. Design development and editing by Irfan Uraizee and Christian Font.

Chart data sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, University of Washington, Morning Consult.

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