Stocking shelves, fearing infection
From the June, 2020 issue
As an employee in a grocery store during the pandemic, I have seen numerous changes in how we work and interact with customers. In the beginning, we had lots of traffic, and very few people wore masks or gloves. After the first stay-at-home order was issued, traffic decreased, and people started buying enough for two weeks or a month. But we still had hundreds of customers in the store at any given hour.
In the early stages of the pandemic, we had been discouraged from wearing any mask or gloves on the floor. It seemed like the focus was on the customers' perception of their safety, not the safety of the employees. We were scared about exposure, but sharing our concerns by speaking up risked alienating management. A lot of people chose to say nothing, even those at high risk for the virus or with a vulnerable family member at home. Some who did speak up were threatened--implicitly or explicitly--with losing their jobs.
It is unnerving to hear someone coughing just an aisle away from you. Although more people wear masks now, many don't adhere to six feet of distance. Some people pull down their masks to talk to you or while they're on the phone or just hang it around their neck while they shop.
A surprising number of people still come in to grab two to three items and then check out. It doesn't seem like a big problem until you realize how many people drift in the door every hour, increasing our exposure. Even after we were allowed to bring our own masks, many went without because they couldn't find one.
Early on, there were no limits on how much someone could buy. We would see people with carts full of a particular item--especially toilet paper. The hoarders left behind empty shelves and irate customers, who vented at us.
We couldn't easily buy toilet paper or hand sanitizer, either. We could be stocking
them and have no opportunity to buy them, because they'd be gone in minutes.
There are people who have thanked the employees for their work and been encouraging. That's nice to hear. But it's been frustrating to see how others behave.
Limits on high-demand items are often ignored. Plenty of people show their selfishness by taking double or triple the limit of an item, and when reminded, some become verbally abusive. Stock that should last half the week is gone in hours.
In most retail settings, the workers are there because they need to make money. We can't afford to take time off or quit. If we get sick, we'll get a paid break to recover. But until then, we have to keep putting ourselves at risk.
There are periodic reminders of that danger. News stories about retail workers getting sick or dying have become more numerous. Or it could just be someone coughing and sneezing down the aisle from you.
I want to end on a positive note. I am thankful to have a job given the current levels of unemployment. I've heard several stories from customers about job loss or about retirement being jeopardized due to the pandemic. I'm aware of how tough things could be.
Right now, I'm able to buy groceries, pay rent, and know that I have steady prospects for employment in my line of work. That is something I can be grateful for.
Lastly, I am grateful to those customers who are courteous, respect posted product limits, and follow CDC guidelines by maintaining six feet of space, wearing a mask/face covering, and limiting trips. Your behavior benefits a lot of people.
[Originally published in June, 2020.]
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