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Worker with a mask in a restaurant
The Worker Institute brings together researchers, educators and students with practitioners in labor, business and policymaking to address issues related to confronting systemic inequality and building a fair economy, robust democracy and just society. We will share opinion, analysis, research, data, insights and training from our faculty and staff.

Interview with Meghan Van Alstine, assistant manager at a Speedway gas station in Buffalo

Meghan Van Alstine

Interview conducted on May 15th, 2020

Introduction:

Meghan Van Alstine has a long history of working in the hospitality, food service, and retail industries. In her current position as an assistant manager at a Speedway gas station in Buffalo, NY, she helps with both office work and direct customer interaction. She believes that gas station and convenience store workers are underappreciated. Some customers forget or refuse to wear masks and protective measures were not immediately implemented during the crisis. She has participated in events organized by the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health (WNYCOSH).

Interview Transcript:

Johnnie Kallas: How long have you worked in your field?

Meghan Van Alstine: I’ve worked at Speedway for about 5 months as an assistant manager. Previously I worked at Uber, Instacart, and Airbnb. I have a long history in hospitality, food service, and retail.

J: Is it a nonunion job?

M: Nonunion, that is correct. I have not really organized with the worker center but I have been in contact to discuss matters with WNYCOSH. Some people I have talked with are scared that companies have not done enough to protect them and waited too long.

J: What is your work like on a daily basis?

M: I deal with customers, manage the store, help with invoices, take care of customer issues, and delegate duties.

I work anywhere that they need me. I have no issue doing paperwork and managerial stuff, but I also can be a cashier or clean, etc.

J: How does it compare with the “gig economy?”

M: All of those things are an on-demand service so when I was available and could I worked for them. With a set schedule, it is difficult to contend with daily life during a pandemic and being a mom with kids that are also stressed and home now.

J: How has the COVID crisis impacted your work?

M: We have received protections. It was a lot later than it probably should have been and I think it was only in response to other corporations in the area taking a proactive approach and people complaining that they did not.

In early-March they said “okay maybe” and decided after Wegmans and Tops put everything in place that they should also distribute this stuff.

It includes masks. They have a poly shield which is less than adequate in my opinion. They have signs on the door but are not very enforceable of the social distancing and mask policy. At the beginning, I was asking customers if they could cover mouths on the way in and I was promptly told by management that I could not do that.

Most everybody is now complying with masks, but we have a few moments where people come in and they don’t know or don’t care.

J: What has the economic impact been for you and your family?

M: My hours were cut slightly but they did give us hazard pay of a $2 increase which is all well and good, but it will be really rough going back to a $2 decrease once this is all over.

J: I can’t say I have heard a lot about gas station workers in this crisis. Are workers at a gas station underappreciated as essential workers?

M: Let me preface this by saying that I would not want to be a nurse or a doctor right now. I give them all the credit in the world and they are essential. I do feel that sometimes there are classes that are forgotten about. That is pretty typical today economically and socially. Even the grocery store workers are considered much more essential than us. We are just kind of here. We exist to give you gas and conveniences and I think people forget that those conveniences can also risk our lives. I see a lot of people walk in without masks and say that they forgot. But they wore it in the grocery store or out to the park, but they forgot to wear it into a gas station. It doesn’t make any sense that there’s this mentality that I will only be in a convenience store for two seconds and don’t have to do that.

J: Has it become confrontational with customers at all?

M: We’ve had people say that Trump says I don’t have to or throw out political rhetoric. I’ve had really nice people come in and buy me lotto tickets. It’s this conundrum and you see the worst and best in people during this situation. I’ve had customers yell at other customers and say they are supposed to be wearing a mask. 

J: What’s it like in Buffalo? It seems to be the hardest hit in New York State outside of the New York City area.

M: The current state is like nothing ever happened. The thing is they are walking around. They’re not supposed to be out, but here they are on vacation. I work by the airport so I see people coming in on vacation and no masks. It’s kind of mind-blowing to me. They are out in droves. The weather is getting nicer and people don’t want to be stuck inside.

A lot of people are like whatever, if I get it, I get it. It blows my mind.

J: I know you spoke at an event on May Day, what kind of message were you trying to send?

M: It was a great opportunity for me to speak to people and portray a side not always thought of and considered “essential.” It surprises me that we are this essential but we are led to slaughter like lambs. 

J: Are your family and coworkers okay?

M: Yes, so far so good. No outbreak in store.

J: Do you have any final thoughts?

M: It’s important to consider everybody essential. Nobody should be led to their death because somebody else needs to make money. I know that sounds very dramatic but in this case, I don’t know that it is.

J: Are you okay with us putting this story up?

M: Perfectly okay with you putting it up.

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