‘Creating history’: Students interview essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Oral history project preserves stories of frontline workers in University of Chicago Library archives

Essential workers have been lauded as heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, but their individual stories—the details that reveal the daily lived realities of nurses and janitors, grocery clerks and transit workers—have often gone untold.

To help change that, University of Chicago undergraduate students are creating an oral history project to share and preserve the voices of these frontline workers.

As part of Assoc. Prof. Amy Dru Stanley’s autumn class on U.S. labor history, the students interviewed workers from hospitals, schools, stores and many other sectors that serve the public. The interviews (48 in total) formed the basis of their final class projects, and will be archived in the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center at Regenstein Library.

“The students are creating history,” said Stanley, a leading historian of U.S. law and capitalism. “They’re documenting the experiences of the people who are risking their lives to sustain all of us during this time.”

The project will continue during the winter quarter in a class taught by Asst. Prof. Gabriel Winant. It explores the nature of essential work and its relationship to social inequality, while posing questions about how essential work is defined, examining the protections offered by unions and analyzing the role of gender, race and other factors in shaping the work that is available to different people.

By providing students with an opportunity to gather first-person narratives, the project encourages them to connect the past and the present while thinking critically about labor studies during the pandemic. And the interviews—which were conducted virtually with workers around the country, from Chicago to Dallas, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area—also created an opportunity to connect with the people who keep our society running.

Teaching assistants Daina Coffey and James Bradley helped guide the project, which has been eye-opening and challenging for students in many ways. Ricardo Mestre, a fourth-year in the College majoring in history, interviewed a Chicago Transit Authority janitor. He was surprised to hear that the janitor had never felt protected at work.

“My interviewee viewed COVID as just another obstacle that they had to meet with self-reliance,” Mestre said.

Fourth-year Andrew Dietz talked to a nurse who felt “disillusioned” by the fact that frontline workers are so frequently cast as heroes without receiving additional compensation. This narrative can amount to emotional blackmail, Dietz explained, because it makes workers seem ungrateful if they request reduced hours, better pay or more personal protective equipment.

“COVID caused my interviewee to reflect on the nursing profession as a whole,” Dietz said. Too often, the nurse felt as if their hospital prioritized economic viability over helping people.

Zebeeb Nuguse, a third-year, spoke to a hospital cook who was worried about members of his team delivering meals to COVID patients in their hospital rooms. The interviewee, Brandon Partin, said workers are not always given details about a patient’s illness due to HIPAA laws. In some cases, members of the hospital team come into close proximity with patients, only to find out later that they may have been exposed to COVID.

Listen to a clip of Brandon Partin, a hospital cook, talking about the risks involved in delivering meals to COVID-19 patients.

Stanley said the class was designed to be “enlightening, disturbing, and provocative of thought” for the students: “In sum, everything that education at the University of Chicago should be.”

Students agreed that the conversations required them to get outside of their comfort zones, while providing an opportunity for human connection at a time of social distancing and a unique perspective on U.S. labor history.

“Doing the oral history project really forced me to think about the ‘through line’ concept—the idea that nothing happens in a vacuum—in a way that I didn’t have to in other classes,” said Libby Rohr, a fourth-year. “Having real discussions with people in our communities has been incredibly valuable.”

Other students were struck by the isolation some essential workers said they felt while navigating the COVID-19 crisis. Many described limited access to PPE, and little guidance from administrators and supervisors about how to perform their jobs safely.

Second-year Daniel Harris interviewed a Chicago Transit Authority extra-board train worker who expressed frustration with the lack of information employees received when a coworker tested positive for COVID. “For all intents and purposes, it is a jungle [for municipal transit workers],” Harris said.

But the students also found workers who have felt solidarity with one another during the crisis. For example, fourth-year Will Mann, a double major in history and economics, interviewed a clinician at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“She expressed a real sense of collectivity and shared suffering with her fellow nurses, doctors and clinicians, and said that this experience has brought them personally closer together,” Mann said. “I think that’s a perspective you don’t often get to hear.”