Essential Workers Art

Leah Ramaekers works in the kitchen and at the counter of a Noodles & Company instead of spending her day on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus. 

Most of her days begin with a class from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and then she works until 10 p.m. most nights. It’s difficult to balance her schedule, but in the eyes of the government, her work is essential. 

Ramaekers, a freshman pre-nursing major, is now a manager-in-training at a Noodles & Company in Omaha. She joins several UNL students who are supporting restaurants and businesses as they adapt to the virus. But for the students like Ramaekers who continue to work during the virus, the constant contact with other people can be frightening and they worry about infecting others.

“Two of my siblings have asthma, and my dad went through a sickness a few years ago that really affected his lungs,” she said. “For me to go out and work and be exposed to all these people is really scary because if I get it, and I bring it home then my family could be at risk.”

Raemaekers worked at Noodles & Company before attending UNL. She continued to go back and work on weekends and over breaks, and she now works regular hours at the restaurant. She said that she could manage without a job right now, but working during this time will help her pay for next fall’s tuition.

According to Ramaekers, Noodles & Company has been taking several precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus, such as frequent handwashing and scheduled, thorough cleanings of the entire restaurant. She also said that the restaurant offers curbside pickup to reduce the number of customers that order in-person, but she still worries. 

“Personally, I think more restaurants should be closed, especially ones that aren’t drive through,” she said. “Grocery stores should stay open because those are essential, but I don’t see restaurants in the time of a pandemic to be essential when people could be cooking at home.”

Payton Chmelka, a freshman elementary education and special education K-6 double major, faces a similar challenge in her line of work. Before the closure of campus, Chmelka worked at the UNL Children’s Center, providing care to children aged six weeks to five years. While the center is no longer open, Chmelka said some student staff members reached out to families they had worked with and offered nanny and babysitting services.

Chmelka said that while she loves being able to continue working with the children she has been caring for, it is stressful because she must be extra diligent with the precautions she takes.

“When I started babysitting, I knew that I couldn’t be around my friends because if they do have COVID-19, I would get the kids sick and that would be bad because kids don’t have good immune systems,” she said.

Even at home, Chmelka said she tries to distance herself from her parents because they still have to go to their essential jobs and she does not want to risk infecting the kids she watches over. She feels an extra responsibility to be socially distant due to the possible impact on others.

Both Ramaekers and Chmelka said that right now is a frightening time, but they want to make the most of it. Chmelka said that she is glad she can at least still be productive and continue helping families.

“I feel productive during my day because it isn’t just sitting there doing homework and going back to bed,” Chmelka said. “It’s nice to get out of the house and go see the family that I work with.”