Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story!
While the stress of the pandemic touches everyone, those who’ve stayed healthy, with steady jobs they can do from home, can find it it fairly easy to keep to a safe bubble. Groceries and meals may be delivered or picked up, contact-free. Those who do venture out benefit from safety protocols maintained by stores and restaurants. Sharing with the needy can be done via click of a mouse — someone else will make the human connection.
All of this is made possible by thousands of essential workers who keep our food chain intact. On these pages we profile some of those who have held our world together this past year — by going to work every day.
>> Age: 39
>> Home neighborhood: Liliha
>> Position: Receiver, Foodland Farms Ala Moana Center
>> Years on the job: 23
Emmanuel Unabia’s workaday world is invisible to the thousands of shoppers who pass through Foodland Farms in a day. Unabia, known as “E-man,” is a receiver, which means he takes deliveries and makes sure items get into their proper holding areas. From there they are stocked on the shelves in the world where we find them — inside the store.
Unabia spends his days on the loading dock and inside Foodland’s warehouse, a space nearly as big as the store itself. Each day he comes into contact with drivers and sales representatives, plus all the store employees who pass through the warehouse to pick up goods.
He’s like a traffic cop, keeping order in a big and busy space. He’ll enforce safety, as well: “If they’re wearing their mask wrong, I say, ‘Hey, cover your nose!’”
In general, Unabia said, he’s taken pandemic precautions in stride — the frequent hand-washing, the constant mask-wearing. Employees go through wellness checks before entering the warehouse and observe social distancing while working. Only one person can be in the break room at a time, which means pacing the day so everyone has a chance to eat. It was all common sense, though. “I got used to it.”
But a year ago, “It was pretty worrisome,” he said, especially since so little was known about the virus and how it spread. “We were very careful. It was like, ‘Wow, this is really a big thing.’”
Some procedures have relaxed, as more became known about virus transmission. He no longer has to wear gloves to handle boxes, for example, nor is he constantly wiping everything down.
Unabia started with Foodland on Beretania Street in high school — “My first job ever” — and worked his way up to this full-time position that he calls “the backbone of the store.”
His day starts at around 4 a.m. checking emails and invoices. Doors open by 4:30 and things stay busy for at least four hours. Through the day he’ll offload goods, check for damage, make sure everything has arrived, rotate items so the shelves are organized by date.
He’ll keep tabs on what’s moving out of the warehouse, as well, working with departments like seafood, meat and produce, calling for more or taking extras from a driver if necessary.
The store has had three COVID-19 cases among its 220 employees, so it had to be shut down and sanitized. Even though the workers were infected outside of the store and he wasn’t in close contact with any of them, he got tested each time, to be safe. Vendors also had scares, he said, which required sanitizing the warehouse, holding up the stocking. “We need products on our shelves, but you have to be safe.”
He knew from the start he’d be considered an essential worker, expected to be at work daily. “I totally understood,” he said, and he never considered quitting.
Unabia lives with his mother and sister, who both also work outside their home. They shower as soon as they get home and keep their laundry in separate baskets, he said.
He doesn’t go out, even now that he’s fully vaccinated. “I would just worry about COVID. … I stay home and watch TV. I just stay in my own bubble.”
It might be safe to socialize with others who’ve been vaccinated, he said, but how would you know for sure?
“There’s no stamp on your forehead: ‘Fully Vaccinated.’”
— Betty Shimabukuro, Star-Advertiser
>> Age: 29
>> Home neighborhood: Makiki
>> Position: Waiter, Zippy’s Makiki
>> Years on the job: 10
When Kahanu Castro and his wife dine out with their little girl, the only restaurant where they feel comfortable enough is Zippy’s — he can vouch for its COVID-19 sanitation standards.
“So I’m working at Zippy’s and eating at Zippy’s,” Castro says, with a chuckle.
The waiter never thought of quitting or taking a furlough when the pandemic began, though he was nervous working so closely with the public daily.
“In the beginning, I was very scared to come to work and catching COVID, because I had an 8-month-old daughter at the time and I didn’t want to give it to her. But now I feel a little safer, because of the precautions Zippy’s is taking.”
When the dining room was closed to sit-down service, Castro worked at the fast-food counter, and his hours were reduced to four days a week. The dining room reopened in August, with seating capacity limited to 50% and with Plexiglas partitions separating diners.
Employees make sure to clean the partitions, booths and tables between customers; to do daily health and temperature checks of the customers and themselves; and wear masks and gloves at all times, he said. Customers, as well, had to get used to the new protocols, and waiting in their cars for tables instead of standing at the door.
“It was a little rough in the beginning,” he said. “But once everybody understood why we did certain things, everyone was on board because we wanted guests and us to stay safe as well. At times I felt safer at work than when I was at home.”
When he and his wife get home they take off their shoes outside the door, walk straight to the bathroom, put their worn clothes in a laundry bin separate from their other clothes, and take a shower. “But if my daughter sees us when we’re just walking in, it makes it more difficult because she wants to hug us, so we have to run away!” Luckily, a relative who babysits runs interception.
“I was very paranoid all the time in the beginning, but now I feel I got it down, so it’s habit now. But there are times when I still think, ‘What did I touch last? Who did I touch? I just went to grab the mail— who did the mailman touch?’”
It’s become automatic to wash his hands frequently, though his skin has dried out and peels sometimes, and his ears at first felt sore from wearing a mask all day. Another adjustment was buying a moped to get to work instead of calling for an Uber, because he was concerned about who’d been in the car before him.
Though business is steady at Zippy’s, he and other waiters have noticed the senior citizens who used to come once, sometimes twice a day aren’t showing up.
“We’re like an ohana in our restaurant. We haven’t seen them as much as usual, so it’s kinda sad. Someone will ask, ‘What happened to John, or have you seen Susie and Pat?’ … One good thing about it, they do come maybe one time and say, ‘Eh, I’m OK, I just want to get over this whole pandemic thing, then I’ll be back.’”
Castro has managed to stay financially stable, even with his tips dropping substantially, by being careful with spending, cooking more at home and because his wife has a good job. And now that restaurants have returned to full capacity, Castro is excited that a pending promotion to supervisor is back on track.
Zippy’s has implemented a safety incentive program that awards points for taking training courses, and bonus points for those who get vaccinated. Castro has signed up for both. “I know that if a number of my teammates are vaccinated, I’ll feel more comfortable coming to work.”
— Pat Gee, Star-Advertiser
>> Age: 22
>> Home neighborhood: Waianae
>> Position: Research and program assistant, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center
>> Years on the job: One, plus two years as an intern
Community is the tie that binds Ruth Kaeo’s life. In her daily work at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, she distributes meals and bags of pantry items to Leeward Coast residents young and old. Kaeo deeply understands how vital this work is, in large part because she is a Waianae girl herself.
“I felt it was my purpose to serve the community. Schools shut down, and people were laid off. A lot of people still haven’t gone back to work,” she said. “The cool thing is seeing directly the impact of what we’re doing. We’re helping people a lot.”
The center’s Health Promotions department distributes food at
14 sites weekly via two programs primarily set up as drive-thrus. Kaeo is a site supervisor at two locations. The Keiki Grab & Go program provides prepared breakfast and lunch meals to children daily, while a Keiki and Kupuna Pantry program offers families bags filled with 5 pounds of canned and dry goods plus items such as fresh produce, frozen meat, poi and “kupuna soup,” made specifically for community elders.
Her department also runs the center’s monthly Community Food Distribution, held in partnership with the city and agencies such as Hawaii Foodbank, providing 70 to 100 pounds of food per family.
As a research and program assistant, some of Kaeo’s responsibilities also involve desk duty, handling patient paperwork. She said most of the department’s staffers have two or three distinct jobs to take care of each day.
As a front-line worker, Kaeo is undaunted by the coronavirus. The center’s staff, she said, is well-versed in safety protocol. The crew wears N95 masks and gloves at distribution sites. Only designated workers open and close vehicle doors (there is no physical contact with clients), and they change their gloves regularly. Everyone else handles the food.
“We all know our responsibility. I’m not worried about myself. I’m more worried about people not eating, that they could survive.”
In fact, Kaeo is confident enough that she opted not to get vaccinated just yet. On the job, “there were a couple scares, but everything worked out. We do have contact with a lot of people, but thankfully, we know how to keep each other safe.”
When she goes home, where she lives with her parents and sister, she heads straight to the shower, keeping her work clothes to a separate area of the garage. She said her mother and sister also work outside the home, but besides going to work, the family mostly stays safe at home.
Kaeo has quite a bit of public service under her belt. After a stint in AmeriCorps, she did a two-year internship at the center before being hired a year ago.
She said that like herself, most of her coworkers live in Waianae, and they share her dedication to feed their neighbors. “We’re like family. Our department is full of girls, so we’re like sisters. That gives me motivation.
“I am definitely committed to this job. It’s physical work and it’s tiring, but … people here are so generous and grateful, and that fuels us and makes us want to do more,” she said. “I’m grateful to have this job.”
— Joleen Oshiro, Star-Advertiser
>> Age: 21
>> Home neighborhood: Kaimuki
>> Position: Shift manager,
>> Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ
Years on the job: Two
Randy Eusebio is a longtime fan of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and his TV show, “Hell’s Kitchen.”
No, the newest shift manager at Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ in Kalihi doesn’t plan to emulate Ramsay’s verbally abusive supervisory style. But he wouldn’t mind a cooking lesson from him.
“I think it would be harsh, but you gotta adapt. I’d probably be OK, I’ve dealt with some crazy football coaches,” said Eusebio, who lettered in three sports at Roosevelt High.
Eusebio and his co-workers have survived and, in some ways, thrived through the pandemic because of cooperation, not confrontation.
“My favorite thing here is the work environment, how everyone is so cool with each other and works as a team,” Eusebio said. “I think it’s a natural thing for us here. We’re all super-close, even before the virus. If the servers are busy, we help run food for them, and they’ll help us when it’s the other way around.”
After graduation in 2017, Eusebio got jobs at Artistry Honolulu cleaning up after events and then Restaurant 604 bussing tables. “I started out (at Gyu-Kaku) as a server two years ago. But when business slowed down I switched to being a cook,” he said.
Now, he’s responsible for the entire dinner operation, with a staff of three servers, two kitchen workers and a host.
Gyu-Kaku on School Street is upstairs from a Rainbow Drive-In location with the same ownership group (which also owns Ruby Tuesday Hawaii). So, when Gyu-Kaku closed temporarily last year because of COVID-19 restrictions, Eusebio worked at Rainbow, doing whatever was needed. “When we re-opened, I came back here. So it kind of worked out,” he said.
Eusebio is excited about his new role and level of responsibility.
“Listening is the most important thing, if it’s co-workers or customers,” he said. “Talk with them in a way that they know you’re actually listening, even if it’s about things that are wrong, and so they know you’re not just brushing them off.”
Gyu-Kaku has always emphasized cleanliness, he said, so dealing with COVID-19 protocols wasn’t hard.
“The mask was a thing at first because it was hard to breathe, especially when it was hot in the kitchen, but I got used to it. We always wear masks and gloves, we’re always sanitizing everything.”
Eusebio can’t remember the last time he even had a cold. Two friends who tested positive for the virus are healthy now. “I don’t have a fear of interacting with people, but I know it’s very important for us all to be careful,” said Eusebio, who plans to get vaccinated now that restaurant workers are eligible.
His girlfriend, Kawai Kaneakua-Rauschenburg, is a teacher. They live a quiet home life in Kaimuki. On weekends they go to Sandy Beach or visit their parents.
“She’s more of a baker than a cook, and she makes delicious banana bread,” he said. “And recently she showed me how to pound paiai with some kalo we got at a fundraiser. It was super-fun and super-
good. We just make the best of whatever we have.”
Eusebio’s longterm goal is to run an entire restaurant. Rick Nakashima, owner of the one he works at now and several others in Hawaii, said he’s on the right track. “Randy is one of our top young people,” Nakashima said. “I hope we can keep him with us and set him up really well.”
— Dave Reardon, Star-Advertiser