Front line: A perspective from the grocery store
By Noémie Desbiens Riendeau
I work at one of the island’s grocery stores, and let me tell you, these are stressful times for anybody who works in this industry. We are on the front lines; so are the workers in the health-care system whose stress levels, I can imagine, are much higher.
The other day I went to work feeling tired and wondering how we were going to make it through another week like the four that have just passed.
As I was greeting my colleagues to start another busy day, a customer came in the store nudging his finger at us saying that we, the employees, were not respecting the social distancing rules because we were not standing at a six-foot distance. None of us answered. We are so exhausted and frazzled by the last crazy busy weeks that we couldn’t even find the words to respond. I understand physical distancing is crucial in stopping the spread of the virus and that this person might also be experiencing some level of fear caused by what is going on in the world right now. However, with the increased workload and stress we’ve been experiencing at the store lately, this kind of interaction was simply just too much to take in.
So I decided to write about what is going on for us on the front lines in order to share my experience, which hopefully will resonate with other people working in the industry during these trying times. My intention is to bring some awareness to our reality to anyone who shops for food on the island.
It is important to mention here that many customers I meet are grateful for the work that we do, and their good words are always welcome. Any form of recognition means a lot to us.
What I would have liked to respond to this customer that other morning is the following: We are like a family. My colleagues and I are working together all day long, touching the same surfaces all day long, using the same bathrooms all day long. I heard the recommendation to choose your cluster — the group of people you are going to interact with during these difficult times — in order to stop the spread of the virus. Knowing how much time I spend with my colleagues, they are obviously part of my cluster.
In addition, keeping physical distance while getting the work done is different than a one-time visit to the store. The nature of our work sometimes doesn’t allow for the six-foot distance needed between each other. And this is an issue which, while being busy filling up the shelves, can add more stress to our days.
Also, we are doing our best to stop the spread of the virus. We clean and sanitize all surfaces touched by customers frequently, which means counters, carts, etc. We are all keeping our distances with customers. We require everyone to use hand sanitizer before they come in and as they leave. All employees have their hands cracking up because of extremely frequent hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer. We’re encouraging everyone to not touch their face, to sneeze in their elbow, etc.
On top of that, we, the employees, are currently overworked and exhausted, physically and emotionally. The last three weeks have been busier than ever, I dare to say, for most grocery stores. This is in part due to food hoarding and the closing of restaurants. Also, not only have we been busier disinfecting the store, filling up the shelves and serving customers at the tills, but our staff team has been reduced as some employees have to self-isolate.
You do not have to be good at math to understand that everything mentioned above means more work for less people, hence, a recipe for exhaustion.
Finally, in addition to dealing with the physical and emotional hardships the current situation is bringing us personally, we are on the receiving end of the emotional stress and dis-ease that customers share with us, verbally or tacitly, while shopping at the store. As most people are staying at home and fear is becoming rampant, we often accidentally become our customers’ impromptu therapists. People not only shop for food, a lot of them look for an interaction or a way to connect. That said, it is a lot to be holding space for our customers when our own internal resources are already in limited supply.
Oh and have I mentioned that grocery store employees are being exposed to the public eight hours or so a day? Customers can wash or sanitize their hands before and after a visit to the store to protect themselves. We are spending the whole day at the store, thus increasing our risk of exposure.
Suffice to say that grocery store employees are doing a huge favour to the population at this moment, exposing themselves to the risk of potential contamination all the while going the extra mile to make sure the shelves are well stocked.
So please, keep that in mind when you shop at a grocery store.
And please, please be kind to workers. Let’s reverse the roles for a moment: smile at us and ask us how we are doing and what we need. We are working very hard right now, physically and emotionally, to stay healthy so you can all be well-fed and healthy.
The writer is a graduate in agricultural and environmental science from McGill University.