Barista’s take on additional COVID-19 stress

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Ryan Ash

Junior Paulina Chmiel pours a drink before serving it to a customer during her shift at the Starbucks located on Oregon Street on Wednesday morning. Starbucks worker Aaliyah Johnson has found a comfortable balance between academics and work this semester.

By Jared Ebanks, Assistant Features Editor

The pandemic has challenged many coffee shops on campus. With Espresso Royale closing all of its locations (before reopening select locations), the shutdown of the Green Street Starbucks and many shops altering their seating and services, students’ options for caffeine consumption have shrunk.

Aaliyah Johnson, junior in ACES, began working as a barista at the Urbana Starbucks on Oregon St. location this semester. Johnson has continuously worked part-time positions since coming to the University as a freshman. However, COVID-19 guidelines have placed an additional strain on these part-time employees.

Basic precautions such as mask-wearing and the plexiglass dividers have helped keep staff and customers safe. However, compared to other locations on campus, the Oregon Street location does not offer mobile orders.

“For a good majority of the first part of the semester, the inside (of the store) wasn’t even open,” Johnson said. “You could only order your drinks and then you had to leave. But now that things are opening back up and you can sit in the store, that makes me more apprehensive.”

Johnson has effectively kept herself safe and isolated this semester, only choosing to surround herself with those who she can confirm haven’t come in contact with the virus. Most students entered this semester with this mindset already, but passing drinks back and forth to customers all day creates ever greater levels of risk and uncertainty.

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    Given the distance from highly populated areas on campus, the Urbana location receives a different demographic of clientele. Off-campus workers will often enter the shop without their mask, Johnson said, though this has been the extent to which the shop has dealt with unsafe customers.

    Prioritizing one’s mental health can be challenging as a college student, especially when it’s intensified by the tensions of a pandemic. Johnson’s small social circle has helped keep her safe and give her peace of mind.

    “Make sure that the people around you are being responsible so you’re not putting yourself in a position where you could catch the virus,” Johnson said.

    Movie nights with her best friend have proved relaxing after the hustle and bustle of completing drink orders all day.

    “Just because you’re around someone that you’re comfortable with, it counts as time for myself and prioritizing myself,” Johnson said.

    Given her larger commitment to a rigorous course schedule, Johnson said she found a comfortable groove with her work schedule and prioritizing time for herself and her academics.

    “I think the fact that it is part-time is enough for me,” Johnson said. “Finding that balance between how much you’re comfortable working and being around people, versus staying in to study and focusing on your classes.”

    Only working a few days out of the week, Johnson said she’s found an ideal situation where management’s understanding of a college student’s life has eased the stress of the job.

    Johnson said her manager has been extremely lenient with her scheduling, as proctored exams with determined start and end times are final. Where she once worried about contracting the virus, the understanding of the life of a college student from her manager has given Johnson comfortability when crafting lattes.

    Managers at the location also require their student employees to show their recent negative test via the Safer Illinois application. Timers have also been set up around the shop, signaling when hand sanitizer needs to be replaced and when the staff needs to wash their hands. These methods of safety have allows Johnson to stay on track of her additional responsibilities while working.

    Johnson prefers the Oregon Street atmosphere over other Starbucks locations such as the Illini Union, where the pressure to produce orders to students catching their last-minute lecture is heightened.

    “Working in Urbana, you get to know more about the people that come in,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of regulars that come in and we can immediately know their drink and get it started before they come to the register. You know the people you’re serving, so it’s more of a bond.”

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