Michelle DeChesser

Michelle DeChesser.

We talked to 12 food industry professionals from Lancaster County about living and working in a pandemic, and how the past year has affected them both professionally and personally.

From chefs and restaurateurs to farmers and bakers, here are their stories, in their own words.

Meet Michelle DeChesser, a prep kitchen chef for a local restaurant chain.

Unlike the others featured in this story, DeChesser is not self-employed and reports to work in her employer’s kitchen. She lives alone and, without a car, takes the bus to get to her job. Last summer, DeChesser penned an editorial arguing for workplace safety protections for restaurant workers.


Michelle:

Pre-pandemic, I worked 50 to 70 hours a week. I was constantly tired, overworked, out of shape and gaining weight. When indoor dining closed (in March 2020) and I was furloughed, I finally got rest. I felt great! I started an online exercise program with free YouTube videos. I was actually able to eat three balanced meals a day. I feel and look better than I have in a long time (at least physically). I’ve also found my voice. I am not afraid to speak out anymore. To tell the truth. To voice opinions. I’m going to try to volunteer with the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.

I went back to work in June when indoor dining resumed. I started slow because working with others in person in a cramped environment made me pretty anxious. I got used to the anxiety because really, what choice do I have? Wearing a mask for six to eight hours a day in a kitchen is hard. Really hard. Some coworkers wear masks with vents. Some don’t clip the nose part, so their mask is constantly falling down. I’ve had coworkers take their mask down to talk. I ask them to pull it up and they comply, but I can’t and won’t be the mask police.

Money is hit or miss. Some weeks I’m making “enough.” Other weeks I’m going backward — not getting enough hours to pay bills but getting too many hours to collect supplemental unemployment or the $300 a week from the federal government. I stress out about money a lot. I can’t live on less than full-time hours forever. I’m tired, especially mentally. I cry, a lot. That’s hard to say and admit, but it’s true. I wish I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t. I go to work and I come home. I currently double mask with a surgical mask worn over a KN95, and I wear glasses or goggles. One of the main and most common symptoms of COVID-19 is loss of smell and taste. What would that do to my job/career? Not to mention how devastating it would be to me personally. Someone who lives for food and wine. I know a woman who is, just one year later, getting her sense of taste back. I cannot risk that; it’s way too high of a price to pay.

I haven’t really seen anyone but my coworkers since last March. My sister drove 12 hours to spend Christmas with me because neither one of us goes anywhere and we are both hyper vigilant about mask wearing. Who knows when I’ll see her again? When will I see my sister who lives in Italy again? My parents?

Right before the indoor dining closure, I was interviewing for a dream job, in a dream restaurant. I had a really good shot, but that opportunity won’t be back for a while, if ever. And that is really, really hard.

2020, in three words: Frustrating, sad, stressful.


Editor’s note: These interviews were conducted both by phone and by email and have been edited for length and clarity. All subjects were asked the same four questions. Italics indicate notes by Kim O’Donnel.


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