From long lineups to hand-washing stations to limits on canned goods and toilet paper, grocery shopping in a pandemic is a very different experience from our pre-COVID-19 “I’ll just run in to grab a bag of milk” days. Canada’s almost 5,500 supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores are overrun by customers stocking up on food to sustain themselves during self-isolation. Not only are grocery-store employees working longer hours, these essential workers are risking their health every day by bagging groceries, ringing up orders, and stocking shelves — all on retail salaries. (Some companies have since increased compensation.)
To get a better idea of the unique challenges facing grocery-store workers, we spoke to a 26-year-old employee in a Toronto store. Before the pandemic, she worked full-time, mostly in the deli section. Now, she rotates between the deli, salad bar, cash register, and preparing online deliveries (which are up 400% across the country). She’s been putting in 13-hour days and lives in constant fear of contracting COVID-19 because of her close contact with customers. Here, she breaks down how she’s dealing with the stress of working on the frontlines of a global pandemic.
First things first, what's it like to work in a grocery store during this pandemic?
Before the pandemic, it was definitely more laid-back. A lot has changed in no time. We hired a security guard to keep the head count at a maximum of 40 customers in the store at a time. There's a hand-wash station for customers to use before entering. Baskets are no longer available and all shopping carts are sanitized after every single use. Inside and outside the store we've measured out the social-distancing standards of a six-foot gap between each individual. If you look at the floor layout of the store, you'll see taped arrows throughout each aisle indicating one-way traffic to avoid any close contact. Each cash register has plexiglass in place to act as a barrier between the cashier and customer during the transaction. It's literally just the front though, so the sides are open, but it's better than nothing.
Another big change is the amount of online orders we're getting. We're on a 24-hour delivery service and it's getting chaotic. Our numbers now peak at 55 orders per day on a regular basis. [It used to be five a day.] The overload results in a week's wait time, if not more, for an online order to be ready for pickup. We have hired a night crew to help play catchup. So, we’re all working around the clock.
Have you noticed a difference in what people are buying?
Lots of disinfectant wipes and sprays. A lot of people are coming in for baking goods like flour, sugar, and yeast. I had four customers within two days come to me for yeast. So, I guess people are getting creative at home and starting to bake.
What do you do when people try to hoard products or buy in bulk?
At first, people were buying bulk toilet paper, but we set a limit of only two per customer. People often ask about product availability. Everyone was worried that we were going to run out of toilet paper. The answer is, we will most likely not, unless the company it’s coming from (or the delivery service) closes down, which I don’t see happening.
Are you worried about getting sick?
Yes, we're scared of getting COVID-19, but we're still coming into work every day to provide for families. Some customers like to come up to your face to ask you questions. With that close contact, nobody feels safe. We're wearing gloves and washing our hands every 15 minutes. My boyfriend works at the store too, so if one of us gets it, we both get it. Especially since I’m dealing with cash up front, I just feel a little more cautious about everything.
We're scared of getting COVID-19, but we're still coming into work every day. Some customers like to come up to your face to ask you questions. With that close contact, nobody feels safe.
How are you dealing with stress of that?
After work, I go to bed and pass out right away. Then I wake up to go back to work. I don't really have a life at this point because of COVID-19. I haven't really had much time to speak to anyone else other than my mom and dad. So, everyone at work, we all vent to each other.
Do you think companies and the government are doing enough to support grocery workers at this time?
Our company gave us a $2 hourly raise. Our store owner helps out too, making sure we have coffee to keep everyone awake or getting pizzas so everyone actually has energy to work. As for the government, I feel like we should get a bonus. Many people out of work are just sitting at home and getting their $2,000 [CERB] cheques whereas we're working overtime; we're exhausted, frustrated, dealing with customer complaints — and we're at risk all the time. We should get compensated for that.
Do you have any coronavirus shopping hacks?
The best times to go shopping are Monday to Wednesday since it’s slower; it picks up again from Thursday to Sunday. Shop online so you don't even have to enter the store at all. Also, purchase enough groceries to last you for a week if not more and only go out once a week, like authorities are asking. I'm seeing many of the same faces shopping day after day for tomorrow's dinner instead of having those ingredients stocked.
What has been your best and worst customer experience since the pandemic started?
We've actually had many customers thanking us and showing their appreciation for what we are doing. We get cards. One or two customers paid for pizzas for staff. My worst customer experience is people not following the rules the government has been insisting on. One of my co-workers told me that he was serving a customer who was told to quarantine, but she just wanted to come in for a few items. That's when a bunch of us freaked out. If you're told to isolate, don't come in.
What else do you want people to know about in-store behaviour?
You see customers getting stressed and then rolling their eyes or kissing their teeth because we have to sanitize the cash belts after every transaction. Or if we don't have a certain item at the time when they want it. I want customers to understand that it's not our fault. It's not the grocery workers, delivery people, or warehouse workers’ faults that items are not being stocked when they expect. We're doing everything we can for everyone else. It would be nice to get a little more appreciation and [for them] not to stress over things that we can't control. It's not fair to us and it puts tension on us as workers.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting economic downturn, has disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food-industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. Checking In is an ongoing series where we pass the microphone to workers in industries most impacted, and ask them what they want us to know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.