From the Frontlines: Working in a Grocery Store during the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 18, 2020

It’s crazy to think that just a few short months ago, I was going to a physical school, hanging out with my friends, and working normal shifts at my part-time job. But now, everything’s different. School is no longer a physical place that I have to get in my car and drive 15 or 20 minutes to; it’s now sitting at my desk with my laptop. My friends are trapped behind screens, and “hanging out” has a different meaning. Shifts at work gradually became longer and more hectic, until it felt like I was going to explode from the stress of customers constantly asking “When will you be getting more hand sanitizer?”

Working in a grocery store was stressful; I’m not going to lie. Luckily, I’ve taken a break from work, not only for myself but for my family members who are at risk. I wasn’t being protected very much anyway. I had to bring my own gloves and hand sanitizer from home to work every day since my fellow employees and I weren’t given any protective gear at all. It felt like we were all alone; no one fighting for us, no one supporting us, no one protecting us. We are the people keeping society together, and I still only make $11.35 an hour. Sure, it’s above minimum wage in Maryland, but it can’t pay for tuition, books, and other expenses as well as car insurance, gas, and groceries all at the same time.

I remember this one incident very vividly: a customer, who came through my line one day, asked if he could get a rain-check for an item that was out of stock. I tried to explain to him that with everything going on and with shelves emptying so fast, that we were not writing rain-checks at this time. He was a little hard of hearing, so I had to repeat myself a few times before he protested and said it was unfair of us to do that during this time and he requested to speak to someone at the customer service desk. I pointed him in the right direction while I finished bagging his groceries and ringing up his total. To no surprise at all, the customer service clerk said the exact same thing to the customer that I did, and yet he seemed to accept the truth from them and not me. Without saying much to me after walking back from the desk, he paid for his groceries and left the store, in a hurry of frustration.

There was also an instance with a couple that came in almost right before we closed one night. They were a young couple; late 20s, maybe early 30s, and their young infant was with them in a carrier basket placed into a second cart that the father pushed while the mother pushed the one with their groceries. They walked toward the aisle where all the infant products are kept. The couple then approached me and my fellow cashiers at the front of the store and asked if we kept any formula up front near the registers or behind the customer service desk as some stores do. I told them “no” and said that all our formula is in aisle 11 as I pointed toward the aisle. The mother explained to me that they walked down that aisle already and did not see any on the shelf. It was then that I realized we were out of baby formula, a household essential for parents of young infants and children. I apologized to her and explained that if it’s not on the shelf, then we don’t have any more of it. She reiterated what I had said to her partner who was a few feet away looking at the clearance shelf with their baby. They understood and paid for the groceries that they were able to find and left the store soon after. I felt really bad for them, needing to buy baby formula but not being able to find it anywhere.

Lastly, there was an elderly woman who came through my line one day and she had brought her own reusable bags. I explained to her that shoppers who bring their own bags are asked to bag their own groceries. She politely refused and said that she cleaned them beforehand and would clean them again when she got home, but she was missing the point. The main purpose of this is to protect the employees from outside bags, but she thought it was to protect herself from her own bags or her own groceries. Reluctantly, I bagged her groceries for her, feeling slightly uncomfortable doing so. I also felt uncomfortable to say anything either to her or my manager, since we’re taught during training that the customer is always right. Nonetheless, I rang up her total and she paid and went on her merry way.

On a more positive note, during one of my shifts, a customer went to the customer service desk after going through self-checkout. I noticed him standing at the desk with the main store manager for a long time, almost a whole hour, so I thought he had a complaint and wanted to get it sorted out. Turns out, he was purchasing gift cards for every employee that was working that day, all worth $5.00 each. After he left, one or two of the other managers passed all the gift cards out to each employee around the store. Another customer tipped me $10 after I rang him up to show his appreciation. At first, I declined his money, saying that he didn’t need to tip me, but he insisted and I accepted.

Overall, I just felt disappointed during all of this. Disappointed in my managers for not protecting us. Sure, corporate gave everyone bonuses to relieve financial stress, but they didn’t even have gloves, masks or even hand sanitizer for us. The cashiers all had to share a half-empty bottle that got passed from register to register. I was also disappointed in a lot of my customers. It was appalling to me that so many people treat cashiers as “less than” and take advantage of us. We’re the ones holding society together right now. The least people could do is show us some respect.



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