Working at a grocery store during a pandemic

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Photo courtesy of Flickr

This spring, President Thomas Hibbs made the heart-wrenching decision to close the University of Dallas campus, protecting students and faculty as COVID-19 spread nationwide. Students not only lost access to the classroom but many lost their jobs, both on and off-campus. 

Those without student worker status, like myself, were presented with a new financial challenge upon returning home. Only essential services, like grocery stores, remained open and hiring. I applied and was interviewed and hired within a week. Here are a few things I’ve noticed since becoming a grocery store employee during a pandemic. 

Our store opens at about 9 a.m., with the earlier hours reserved for vulnerable shoppers like the elderly, pregnant women, and people with underlying health conditions. Almost every day, there are about 20 elderly folks grouped outside the doors waiting to score on limited items, like toilet paper, canned soups and cleaning products. 

About 80% of shoppers are over the age of 60, and not just in the mornings. Of those customers not wearing masks or gloves, the elderly are dominant. 

I’m still not used to people wearing masks. It takes a moment to register that a woman with a scarf over her face isn’t doing so for warmth, or the man staring you down is mouthing for help with an item. It’s an odd thing, but customers and coworkers are learning how to communicate with these new social obstacles. 

So far, my fellow employees and I are all healthy. Our short-staffing does not come from illnesses, but rather from the new duties our stores have assigned to keep up with precautionary measures in my home state of Wisconsin. 

“Sneeze shields” block cashiers from airborne germs. There are plenty of gloves, wipes and cleaning sprays, and store hours have been cut even shorter to allow for time away from the workplace. An employee is always stationed outside sanitizing carts after each use, handles are wiped down at every opportunity and new cleaning protocols have been set in place. We’re offered a mask at the beginning of our shift and are expected to wear clean latex gloves at all times.

It’s demanding, but it really is just “work.” What stands out is the behavior of the customers. 

Some folks get creative when attempting to avoid contact with another human being. Never before have I seen a woman move with such ninja-like dexterity when passing a fellow maskless shopper. It was honestly the entertainment I needed, all from the comfort of the produce section! 

People have certainly settled down from the initial panic of COVID-19, but to this day we are out of certain items, there is a limit on canned goods and eggs and only 60 people are allowed in the store at a time. 

It has been a bit nerve-wracking to walk into work, not knowing if I’ll catch something and bring it home to my family. 

After each shift, I put my clothes straight in the wash and hop in the shower. I disinfect my phone and belongings, and load up on vitamin C and zinc. Being home during this time has given me an opportunity for sleep, healthy eating and joyful time with my family. The stresses of work and school remain, but with COVID-19 being a potential threat to me and the ones I love, I’m grateful to be home. 

So if you were wondering about grocery store workers, most of us are doing okay. We aren’t “heroes” for continuing to work, but a kind smile is always appreciated. 

If you feel safer at home, many stores deliver. And if you know an elderly friend or neighbor, please offer to go on a grocery run for them. It breaks my heart to see high-risk customers come into our store daily. We are in this together!

And no, we still don’t have toilet paper.

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