A first-hand account of an essential worker during COVID-19

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Bella Coulter , Staff Writer

By Bella Coulter

While most people in the world have been confined to their homes, instructed by their government to remain indoors to slow the seemingly never-ending spread of this virus, I have been going out. A lot, actually. Specifically for seven to-eight-hour shifts at the grocery store where I work. 

With the emergence of this pandemic, the public flocked to their local grocery stores to stock up in fear of the unknown, and someone had to be there to serve them. That someone is me, along with about 30 of my fellow associates in various departments around my store. 

The first week that the city started to shut down, my place of work was a madhouse. Working during that first week of the pandemic was the closest thing I think I’ll ever see to an apocalypse. The orders were sky high, the highest one that I rang up being $525. People were in a frenzy, toilet paper and paper towels were gone, and within days our shelves were bare. 

My manager made an announcement that part-time employees could start working up to 40 hours a week, and my coworker started calling over all of us one by one and told us to write our names wherever we wanted on the schedule, depending on when we were free and how many hours our parents allowed us to work. 

Our store was in panic mode.

I ended up working 48 hours that week, eight hours overtime, working as a cashier, a customer service clerk, stocking produce, dairy, grocery, and even unloading trucks after closing. I finally got a day off after working 11 straight days, but the madness had only begun.

Ever since then, I have been working pretty much as a full-time employee, getting 40 hours and more every week. Sometimes I stock or work as a cashier, depending on where they need me, but I am predominantly a customer service representative, a position that requires a lot of patience during this crazy time. 

A lot of people have been thanking us as they shop, calling us heroes, and equating us to first responders. One man even said that he would rather be fighting in a war than doing what we are doing. I think I can vouch for all my coworkers when I say, it is not all that glamorous. 

Yes, we are working every day on the “front lines” of the virus, but wearing a mask, washing our hands, and sanitizing throughout our shift is really all that’s necessary to ensure safety from the virus. No one at my store has gotten the virus or even gotten sick. The conception that we are all at such a high risk and deserving of all this praise seems a little silly in my opinion. 

Don’t get me wrong, it has been really nice that people are finally appreciating the amount of work that we do to keep their grocery store up and running, but comparing us to first responders and soldiers in battle is a little excessive. 

On the other hand, there is a portion of our customers who seem to have missed the gratitude memo, and have just gotten even more rude. As a result of the virus, there were several rule changes throughout the store that varied from week to week, causing a lot of confusion, and sometimes anger, among customers. We have been cut off from doing Western Union cashouts, which resulted in one woman screaming and gyrating at not one, but two of my managers about how we were going to give her the money. 

We did not give her the money. 

We also have been instructed not to give any refunds on grocery items if the customer took the product out of the store because we are unsure of where the product could have gone. In the midst of a pandemic, putting a product back on a shelf after we are unsure of its whereabouts could prove deadly for an at-risk customer.

This new policy has caused so many verbal assaults by customers, I’ve lost count. It has gotten to the point where I actually get anxiety when someone comes up and asks for a refund, because I’m so scared of their reaction when I tell them I can’t give it to them.

The other day, my manager happened to be standing right next to me when an angry woman came up to the desk and demanded we refund her for cashews, because apparently we had put them in the wrong place on the shelf, and they weren’t the cashews she wanted. My manager quietly told me to just do the refund anyways to avoid any further interaction with this woman. The customer was so rude about it, that after she walked away, another customer came out from behind a display and commented on her ridiculous behavior.

Two positives that are coming out of all of this, however, are the relationships I’m making with my coworkers and the paycheck. 

Since I’m at the store practically every day, I’ve become really close with a ton of people that I would never have gotten to interact with before. Even though I’m still only 17, I’ve become best friends with people double and triple my age throughout all the departments. 

Another cool thing is that I’ve been able to get closer to the people my age too. A lot of the cashiers had to put in a leave of absence because they didn’t want to work during the virus, and those of us remaining have become really close. They’re the only people I hang out with anymore because all my school friends have been trapped inside for the past several weeks. 

Also, of course, there’s the paycheck. Working all the extra hours, plus the hazard pay really has boosted my bank account quite a bit. Despite everything that I lost as a result of this quarantine, at least I’ll be going into college much more financially stable than I thought (whenever that ends up being).

I would say there is a healthy balance of positives and negatives, being an essential worker during a pandemic. The coolest part is getting to tell my grandkids that I worked at a grocery store during the biggest quarantine in modern history. It’s also just keeping me from losing my mind, because without work, I would really be stuck at home. 

Anyways, happy quarantining everyone! Hopefully we will see the light at the end of the tunnel soon.