So You’ve Been Deemed An Essential Worker … Now What?
What it’s really like to work as a grocery store employee during a global pandemic.
I have been a cashier at a grocery store for the past 16 years. In that time period, I have seen every manner of human behavior — both incredibly good and incredibly bad. It has actually been quite a fascinating character study on humanity in general. However, nothing in my vast experience of working with the general public remotely prepared me for what the year 2020 had in store.
In the beginning …
Back in early March of this year, a family member and I went on vacation to Las Vegas. There were mutterings even then about this new virus that had surfaced, known as COVID-19, but we really didn’t think anything of it at the time. It wasn’t affecting us, after all. We returned home on March 9th, still blissfully unaware of how serious the virus situation was becoming. Two days later, a global pandemic was declared and the world began slowly shutting down. I can’t even believe how well the timing worked out on our return to Canada. I consider myself incredibly lucky.
When I returned to work the following week, I walked into a much different environment than the one I had left. Staff members were nervous and tense. A number of employees had even decided to take a leave of absence to be on the safe side. Customers were scared, stressed out, and panic buying (yes, the phenomenon of toilet paper hoarding was completely true).
Over the next few weeks, we saw a vast increase in the volume of customers entering our store on a daily basis. I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for that.
On March 23rd, the government of Ontario ordered all non-essential businesses to close their doors in hopes of stopping the virus from spreading so quickly. What did this mean for me, you ask? Well, I work in a grocery store. I was now deemed essential. If only I had known then what that title would entail.
So what exactly does it mean to be deemed an essential worker?
While everyone else was ordered to stay home as much as possible, I was doing the exact opposite. I was required to go out in public almost every day (taking public transit to get to work no less) and serve the masses — people still have to eat, right?
Honestly, at first, the thought of being essential was kind of flattering. I liked the idea that I would be helping my community in a time of crisis. I also remember thinking: “Great. I still have a job to go to every day, which is more than a lot of people can say right now.” I never took that for granted, but if you were to ask me a few months later, I’d probably tell you that I’d much rather be staying safe at home on unemployment.
Unexpected side effects
Most individuals I encountered at work were incredibly kind to us in those early stages of the pandemic. We got a lot of people saying “thank you for being at work” and “thank you for everything you’re doing” every single day. I had several customers offering to give me tips and/or gifts to show their appreciation. People even started touting us as heroes and saying “thank you for your service.” I really didn’t know what to do with that if I’m being honest. This wasn’t my choice. I wasn’t doing anything special. I was just continuing to do my job to the best of my ability. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate all of the kindness. Those simple “thank yous” actually meant quite a lot to me and they kept me going when things got a little too difficult.
The one thing that took me by surprise in all of this was the guilt that I felt. What right did I have to feel so stressed out and nervous when there were untold numbers of medical professionals actually putting themselves directly in the line of fire fighting this virus every single day? Why should we be deemed heroes when we were just trying to keep a little normalcy in people’s lives?
Suddenly being essential came with a substantial increase in the amount of stress we faced on a daily basis. We kept hearing that the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to physically distance yourself from people as much as possible. As a cashier who runs the self-checkout area in my store, this became virtually impossible for me — which made me incredibly nervous. It wasn’t so much the thought of getting sick myself that scared me; it was the fear of bringing the virus home to my immune-compromised mother, or of unknowingly spreading it further while working. Every day that I went into work I got a little more nervous, but I tried my very best to protect myself as much as possible.
Welcome to the new normal
In order to deal with this unprecedented situation we were now facing, my company set up a type of virtual task force. There were chat rooms created where we could all voice our concerns, offer suggestions, and ask questions. Working together, we put a number of new safety measures in place. Store hours were reduced (with a dedicated hour just for seniors enacted in the morning), plexiglass barriers went up at every cash register, extra cleaning protocols were put in place, and bottles of hand sanitizer were suddenly everywhere as far as the eye could see.
Stickers were placed on the floor to mark where customers should be standing while waiting in line in order to keep them the appropriate distance apart. Limits were placed on the number of people allowed in the store at any given time. People now formed a line outside, waiting on designated tape markings until they were allowed to enter — again keeping them at a safe distance from each other. A security guard was also placed in the lobby in order to monitor the situation.
Inside, instead of having a separate line at each checkout, one long line made its way down the center aisle of the store. An employee at the front directed traffic so to speak — sending one customer at a time to whichever cashier became available first. In a matter of weeks, life as we had known it had completely and utterly changed.
Our company also decided to institute a temporary “Essential Service Pay Premium”, which amounted to an extra $2/hour for all hours worked from the beginning of March. I appreciated the gesture because they certainly didn’t have to give us anything extra at all. That program ended in June though, after being extended multiple times. It’s a little bittersweet. We are still considered essential workers, still doing a ton of extra work with an increased amount of stress, and still at increased risk of catching this virus compared to most people, but now we’re back to our regular wages as if nothing ever changed.
Riding the emotional roller coaster
In my 16 years as a cashier, I have never experienced anything like this. Every day brought hundreds of customers to our store at once. It was suddenly as if our busiest holiday of the year was happening every day of the week. There was constantly a never-ending crowd of wall-to-wall people. Line-ups went to the back of the store and around the corner for the better part of the day.
During all of this, the majority of customers were incredibly kind and patient. I’ve honestly never felt more appreciated in my working life. Some … were not. Those few people who decided to yell at us for things that were out of our control, or even throw things at us when they were politely asked to follow the new safety protocols made everything just a little bit harder. Those first few weeks of being “essential” were absolutely exhausting. I came home every day wanting to cry myself to sleep because I felt so mentally and physically drained. I dreaded going back in to work the next day.
But what choice did I have? The world needed us.
The stress definitely took its toll though. I think the hardest part of this whole scenario for me was the uncertainty of it all. Living in limbo indefinitely does wonders for your mental state. Not having an end date in sight or knowing what to expect from one day to the next had a huge negative impact on me. Ultimately, I ended up taking a few weeks off from work just to give myself a mental break and recharge my batteries. It was the only way I felt I could retain some small piece of my sanity.
Facing the inevitable
In a matter of weeks, three different people tested positive for the virus at my store. Each time, the store was thoroughly deep cleaned overnight. Anyone who had worked directly with those employees was immediately informed and self-isolated if necessary. Each time, my work environment also got a little tenser because we were all increasingly nervous and stressed out. After the third positive case turned up, the health unit recommended that our entire store staff get tested just to be on the safe side.
Let me tell you, the COVID test is decidedly … unpleasant. It felt exactly like having a giant Q-tip shoved up your nose and twirled around. At least it was over relatively quickly. It gave me some brief peace of mind going to work every day knowing that I tested negative.
Coming full circle
We are now roughly 6 months into this pandemic. We are slowly but surely adjusting to our new normal. Masks are now a part of our everyday attire. Things are slowly re-opening here. So where does that leave us essential grocery store workers?
Almost entirely back where we started, at least in the eyes of the general public. We still get the odd “thank you for being here” but for the most part, people have gone back to treating us exactly like they did before. I guess the novelty finally wore off.
A final plea
My biggest take away from this whole experience is that the world needs a little more kindness each and every day. This pandemic seems to have brought out the best and the worst in people.
I have one last request for the public at large:
We are doing our very best to keep things running as smoothly and normally as possible, while also trying to keep everyone safe and healthy. Please try to remember that. Remember that a little kindness can go a very long way. Try to be patient. I know that everyone is burnt out and tired of dealing with this strange new world we’ve found ourselves living in, but we’re doing the very best we can.
So the next time you find yourself getting frustrated with the long lines, waiting for cashiers to clean before serving you, or mandatory mask-wearing … take a moment to stop and think. Remember that we are doing all of this for you. We never asked to be deemed essential during this trying time, but we are gladly doing our part.
Please just be kind and return the favor.