Every month during the COVID-19 pandemic, the news would report the unemployment numbers of the past month. So much focus was put on those losing their jobs that the work and sacrifice of essential workers became a passing thought to many of us. Therefore, to get a better representation of their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, we interviewed Saul, owner of Cal-Vine Market, a family-owned neighborhood market in Ontario.

Shortened Transcript

[Saul]: I had to be out here, where it was the scary, possible getting sick and all of us dying, but we had to do it. 

[Zuleyma]: That is the voice of Saul, owner of Cal-Vine Market, a family-owned neighborhood market in Ontario. I spoke to Saul as part of El Sol’s Three-Part Series titled Life Under a Pandemic. In this episode, we take a closer look at the life of an essential worker and the impact COVID-19 had on a neighborhood market. Let’s get started.  

This is my first time in this market, and I saw there’s a lot of homes around it. Would you say it is a very community-based market?

[Saul]: Yeah, I mean my family – that’s my mother over there – they bought the market in 1981 and this market has been here since the 1930s so we been here for 40 years and we been seeing families generation after generation and such. 

[Zuleyma]: You guys have been here for a while but I am sure you have never experienced such a thing as COVID-19. It’s been a year since we been under strict restrictions. How was your experience here at the market when it first started?

[Saul]: Well back in March, when everyone started panicking and buying everything up, we had those 2 or 3 days when they came in and just emptied out my store and it’s like what is happening, it’s so crazy. People are just buying everything up and I usually have my store very nicely stocked and extra stuff in the back but they started buying up all the rice and all the beans and all the pasta, everything was just going, going, going.

And then we started hearing people are dying, people are getting sick, and we don’t know how it’s happening, but yet we had to come in here and open, we had to be here dealing with people and we don’t know how people are getting sick, how this was being transmitted and stuff. 

And then in April, I got sick so I had to leave for 24 days, and the store had to close for about 2 weeks while everyone got tested. My other family members had to come in and help. Those were the early, more difficult and scary times.

And now I hear people talk about it’s so lonely, we were locked up for months and months in our bedrooms and apartments, we couldn’t leave, we couldn’t go out. And I’m on the other side of that, I had to come, I had to be out here, my social didn’t change. I was still here, I still had to do everything, I still had to go buy merchandise, I still had to go into the stores out into LA to buy stuff to bring back. So I didn’t get that lonely, secluded, and locked up feeling because I couldn’t be. I had to be out here, where it was the scary, possible getting sick and all of us dying, but we had to do it. 

So we were on the other side of it and I am listening to people say, “Oh, now we are coming out after a year,  haven’t been able to do anything for a year.” It’s like I haven’t been able to stop for the year. I wasn’t able to, you know, we were not able to.

[Zuleyma]: Right, sometimes I feel we focus so much on how the community has been affected that we forget about the workers that are in the community.

Besides yourself, did anyone else here, employee wise, experience the symptoms.

[Saul]: Yeah, my cashier. She was sick too, so she was out for about three weeks. Then when I got sick, my other cashier quit, she said, “I can’t go back.” She got scared, I could understand. I had to deal with one less employee and me being out. 

[Zuleyma]: It must have been hard, it was right at the beginning when there was so much demand.

[Saul]: Yes, there was so much to learn.

[Zuleyma]: I can see how much the community relied on you from the start and even now, nonprofits like El Sol are relying on you to spread the information on the vaccine and about COVID. What do you see as next steps for us to get over this pandemic?

[Saul]: I ask people all the time, “Hey, did you get vaccinated, did you get your vaccine already?” and a lot of people say, “No I didn’t, I am not sure. I do not know if it’s going to be okay.” I get that a lot from people and also, “I don’t know how.”

I did it, so I have written it down many times. I say, “Here is the website, go there and set it up.” I have actually sat here with people on my phone and I go, “Come on, do it right now,” and I have encouraged my employees to do it too. So I think that’s a big hump. 

Some of them come up and say, “Can I do it?” And they won’t say why, but it’s obviously because they are illegal immigrants. And I go, “Yes, don’t worry, they don’t ask you that, that’s not a problem.” 

So I think those aspects right there are very important still. Something like what you guys did [tabling events] was very encouraging for some people. It would be great if there was a way you guys could set up an appointment. 

[Zuleyma]: Right now we started working with Kaiser Permanente and Loma Linda. In the future, having those tabling events with those appointments ready would work. 

A few weeks after my interview with Saul, Community Health Workers at El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center, started scheduling appointments for COVID-19 vaccines at a local swap meet. This was done as an effort to increase access to vaccines in hard hit communities.

This episode was brought to you by El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center. To learn more about our Three Part Series, please visit our website at elsolnec.org. Until next time.

Final Thoughts

Essential workers encompass a wide range of services from providing healthcare to stocking shelves in our supermarkets. They would come to work risking not only their health, but also the health of their families and loved ones. And while those who lost their jobs were able to collect COVID-19 extended unemployment benefits, these essential workers, who are disproportionately people of color working in minimum wage jobs, had to fight and continue to fight for hazard pay. It is the responsibility of our city, county, and state leaders to ensure these workers are properly compensated for their sacrifices.

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