When I am not in the newsroom (which is almost never), you can find me working at a local grocery store. It’s not glamorous work, but it pays the bills and the necessities — food, tuition and lots of shoes.
I have worked in the grocery retail industry for a few years and the least I can say is it’s an experience. I see the best and worst of humanity from behind the deli counter.
This was exemplified during the height of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. After classes were moved online in March, I picked up more shifts at work. Everything at the store had changed — more cleaning, fewer items in stock, more social distancing and less face-to-face customer service.
I was no longer allowed to give out samples of our products and was outlawed from my favorite part of my job: Giving pieces of American cheese to children who accompanied their parent to the store. (OK, this may seem like a little thing, but this was my favorite part of going to the grocery store as a child. Talk about coming full circle.)
As the pandemic continued, associates received increased wages as our society praised “essential workers.” There were videos of recognition, free food, social media posts and extra gratitude from most customers.
Customers, while disappointed, were understanding that we were out of just about every product and did not know when items would return to the shelves.
However, after weeks of staying at home turned to months, the understanding and composure of customers disappeared. Understandably, people were frustrated that their lives were put on hold. A monotonous trip to the grocery store became like a scene in the “Hunger Games,” where tributes raced one another to collect supplies. After all, they just wanted a roll or two of toilet paper.
The patience quickly disappeared as needed supplies were nowhere to be found. Videos surfaced online of maskless customers yelling and threatening employees. The extra wages and free foods ceased. But the need to limit capacity in the stores and wear masks remain. The increase in confrontations and threats of violence was evident.
There are retail horror stories from just about every state: An unruly customer who does not want to comply with the store’s coronavirus policies, an employee who has to enforce these policies for fear of their health and job and a crowd of onlookers ready with their cell phones to submit the video to major media outlets.
These confrontations range from “Karen” meltdowns in the middle of the store to threats of shooting employees for simply doing their jobs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists tips on how to limit workplace violence associated with the coronavirus.
The workplace environment changed and felt physically threatening, as if the threat of contracting the virus was not enough.
I distinctly remember an early morning where a customer screamed at my coworkers and I for not keeping anything in stock. I am sure that this man was not that upset about our lack of chipped ham, but instead the lack of ham was the breaking point of a pandemic’s worth of problems. He was not wearing a mask but secured a vast variety of cleaning supplies.
A few minutes later an older woman in a mask with a small cart with milk, cereal, some cans of soup, a small can of Lysol and a box of donuts asked for the same product. I apologized to her and prepared for the berating, but she said, “Don’t worry, I have what I need! Probably too many donuts but I want them.”
Again, you see the best and worst of humanity.
The essential workers faithfully remain in their workplaces — whether it is for their devotion to service, love for their community or a need for a paycheck. But how long will they stay? Who wants to work an oftentimes low-paying job with constant berating and even safety threats?
We are all sick of the masks and restrictions. We share the yearning to return to some semblance of normalcy. We will return to normalcy but until we reach that day, we must try to remain patient.
Afterall, it is the most essential, and most human, thing we can do.