Illustration by Audrea Wah
I’ve picked the worst time in my life to work at a grocery store. While most workers, students, and elders in the city spend days confined to their homes, my coworkers and I are called to the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. It came out of nowhere.
The coronavirus has been the hot-topic of the 24-hour news cycle for months now, but it all felt so distant at first. President Trump has labeled the virus as ‘foreign’ and ‘Chinese’ despite thousands of cases continuing to spread throughout the U.S., deflecting the blame for the spread of this viral infection away from his administration.
Though the hysteria feels to have come on abruptly, my shifts in early March were exactly what I expected — weekdays were fine, weekends were hell. But midway through the week of March 11, when Trump addressed the nation, the panic buying began. We sold out of water, beans, and hand sanitizer immediately. After a couple more days and a few more rounds of shoppers, the store feels empty; the store objectively is empty. The soup station, hot bar, salad bar, and olive bar are all closed. Coffee and alcohol bars are closed, with all seating removed. My specific location, a hangout for loiterers and people exploiting free wi-fi, is now empty.
The workers are also empty, myself included. Customers greet us with slews of, “Wow! You guys sure must be empty! When are you going to get a restock of [enter specific item here]?” and “When is the next truck coming in? This isn’t going to look like this forever, right? You sure must be tired of people asking that. . . ” These comments drive workers to feel lifeless under the power of the coronavirus-induced panic.
U.S. institutions of all kinds attempted to function as normally as they could for as long as they could.
My job has provided gloves and (sticky) hand sanitizer, but we are not allowed to wear face masks. And the setup of a cash register forces cashiers to break CDC’s recommendation of a six-foot distance. I am fortunately a healthy young person who hopefully won’t get any severe symptoms from COVID-19 if I’m infected, but I worry for my coworkers with compromised immune systems, and the elderly folk that have been with the company for years. Although my company has provided unlimited unpaid sick days through the end of March and two weeks of paid sick leave for those of us that test positive for COVID-19, we are afraid to call off.
With certain sections of our store closed — the salad bar, coffee station, etc. — the barrier between departments has been dissolved. Now, we all take the time to help each other out. Produce department members will bag for cashiers, and cashiers will help restock in grocery. There is an incredible amount of solidarity between workers that has never flourished before. We’re all in this together, without corporate defining us as a "team."
To call off a shift means to increase the workload for those also scheduled. There is a great divide between corporate and the low-rank workers of my store right now. While the higher-ups are kept safe at home, we are forced to work for the benefit of the general public. And despite a $2 increase in pay halfway through March until April 1st, my coworkers and I are calling for double-time pay in light of the hazardous conditions we are forced to work in. If we don’t want to come into work, we are not paid unless we test positive for COVID-19. And most of the time, the part-time employees without health insurance are the ones being asked to cover extra shifts to avoid paying full-timers overtime.
There is such a high demand, our ‘buyers’ (those who order products for the store) have been suspended and our warehouses are sending whatever they can. Despite the government’s suggestion of a two-week supply, customers have been wiping us clean of essentials. For those who didn’t take an economics class in high school or college, the concept of supply and demand is a key takeaway. The demand for something like toilet paper is relatively consistent year-round, since it’s something we need on a regular basis. The task is left to the manufacturer, and with the companies making toilet paper already running 24/7, there is little room for increased productivity. They are aware of the spike in demand, and most are cutting corners to meet the needs of U.S. shoppers right now. You may see a lack of diversity in product, often the ‘easiest-to-manufacture’ will be available — especially for cleaning items, hand sanitizers, and medications.
My grocery store (and many other chains) have now accommodated for elderly folk and team members by adjusting store hours. We open one hour late for the general public, allotting one hour just for people over the age of sixty. On top of that, we’ve also decided to close two hours early to allow for more time for restocking and sanitizing. In a combination of new store hours with new rations on product quantities ranging from toilet paper to milk to frozen vegetables, my store is healing from the destruction of the panic shoppers.
We’ve introduced limits on how close customers can get to one another while waiting in line, now limit the number of people inside in general, have installed sneeze guards at cash registers, and hourly clean everything at our register. Although my store feels a lot more prepared for panic buyers, my coworkers and I are still incredibly overwhelmed.
Each shift means sweating, excessive hand-washing and sanitizing, harsh chemicals burning our noses, and standing for so long our feet become sore. It’s exhausting to be on the front lines of a pandemic, but there’s nothing we can do. We have to provide for the public, regardless of the risks.
I am not requesting people to stop shopping at grocery stores like my own — we all need to eat. But I am asking for those of us in a place of privilege to be considerate. Consider those with higher vulnerability, whether that means in terms of health or income-level. Maybe pick up a pack of toilet paper to donate, give some beans to a pantry for those left without a job or be patient with your local grocery store cashiers. Now is the time to work together.
Stay healthy. Stay safe. Be well. Stop buying so much toilet paper. f