Q&A with a 30-year Employee of a Grocery Store

I feel like my company is doing the best they can and listening to our concerns and adjusting to help us. I feel customers are not.

Photo: Sue Kerr, bags of groceries from our local chain

Many of us who have worked retail and/or grocery retail in the past have some appreciation for what our neighbors in those jobs are experiencing, or perhaps more accurately, we realize that we probably DON’T know what it is like better than someone who never held that sort of job.

A friend I’ve known since childhood has been working for a grocery store for 30 years. We’ve talked on and off about her experiences occasionally. She is a single mom who has two adult children, lives with a chronic illness, and is amazing in lots of ways. She shared this recently on Facebook.

I work with the most amazing group of people on the planet. We are always there and ready to band together when someone is mean to us. I know everyone is stressed out at this point. I have sat and cried on my lunch. I wish people would think about how we are risking our lives and the lives of our families to make sure everyone can have a safe experience at the grocery store. When I have had customers be nice to me it catches me off guard.

(I have had customers thank me for being there and I almost started to cry.. just to have someone show me the smallest amount of decency was so heart warming)

I asked her to share some of her experiences. She graciously agreed spending time on her day off to answer my questions.

I’m not using her name, but I encourage you to consider sending her a donation/tip for her genuine sacrifices and the knowledge she is sharing. You can PayPal me with a note and I will forward anything to her.

You work for a regional grocery chain that is not located in Pennsylvania. What are the current guidelines for the public? Is there a stay-at-home order? We have stores in multiple states. In my state we have put lines 6 feet apart on the floor at the registers and self check out to keep customers 6 feet apart. We do not have a stay at home order since we are deemed essential. There is a stay at home order for everyone else. If an associate calls work to say they are sick and unable to come in we ask why they are calling out. If they have a fever they must talk to their doctor and have a note before returning to work. In most cases the doctor’s office does not want to see them, but wants them to stay home usually 5-7 days and will give them a note to return to work.

How long have you worker here? How old are you? June will be 30 years. (10 years ago my current company purchased the company I was working for and kept everyone that worked there) I turned 50 in January.

Is your store operating as usual or have they made changes to the hours or departments?
We have made changes and we continue to make changes. We still work our usually hours. 6a-12a. But customers are only allowed in the store 7a-9p. We spend the other hours cleaning and re stocking the shelves. We are cleaning between customers at the registers .

The bakery no longer has items sold individually.. like donuts, rolls, or other pastries. Everything is packaged. The deli no longer has coffee for sale, hot soup, and no longer cutting lunch meat on demand. Everything is pre sliced and packaged. Our bottle return area is closed. We are no longer allowing customers to return or exchange items; all sales are final for the time being.

We are all stressed out. Most are having trouble sleeping. Panic attacks seem to be the new norm. We work because we have to. Some are terrified to get sick and bring it home to our families. We are so fatigued when we get home.

Are your coworkers unionized? No

How many other grocery stores do you have in the area? We have multiple locations within the area and we have 5 different chains in the area, not counting the little mom and pop shops.

What steps has your employer taken to create a safe work environment? How safe do you feel at work? They have put up plastic curtains and plexiglass around the pharmacy and service desk. There has been talk about putting something up around the cashiers. I think once they figure out how and what would work they will be putting something up. We try to use every other register at first. Then have to fill in with the registers as needed when we are busy. We have gloves available for all associates. We can wear surgical masks (the company will not provide them… with the shortage a lot of people have been making some for the hospitals and as of now we were told we are not allowed to wear homemade ones; but I feel that will change).

As of March 1st we no longer have plastic bags. So everyone has to bring their own bags back or get charged for a bag. There is some talk about us either getting plastic bags back or having the customer bag their own groceries in their reusable bags. I see the same customers almost everyday. They are not staying home. I saw one lady 3 times in one day. And she was only getting odds and ends not real groceries. My location is a very busy 1st-of-the-month store, we’ve been naturally busy lately, as we all know, and still people are not following the 6 feet rule.

I feel like my company is doing the best they can and listening to our concerns and adjusting to help us. I feel customers are not. All sales are final, customers can not return any item. If it is spoiled I can give you a new one but you must take the spoiled one home with you and throw it away. After this is all over with we will not be doing refunds on any item people have hoarded. Will be interesting to see how that will go over with customers .

Does your store offer delivery? My location does not offer delivery or pick up. Some of our other locations offer pick up. It was postponed for a few weeks. It will start back up this weekend; but will only have limited amounts of orders they will take.

Do you have the option to take paid leave? The only paid leave option we have is FMLA. The only way you will get paid due to covid-19 is to test positive for it. If you’re just scared and don’t want to work you will be denied.

What does your typical workday look like right now? How many hours are you working each week? I work 40 hours a week. 8 hours a day 5 days a week. I did get a few hours of overtime last week; and a little so far this week. I’m trying to not over due it because I don’t want to tire myself out too much. Our part time associates can normally work up to 34 hours a week. Some have been getting up to 40. Full timers can only get up to 8 hours of overtime. We have been hiring a lot with the understanding if they do not pass the drug screening and background check they will be let go. They usually do the drug screening and background check 1st before the new hire paperwork. Right now anyone can fill out an application and get hired as long as they have ID.
(We have a lot of people that do not normally pass the drug screening)

The news reports that supply chains are fine, but customers are buying in excess and keeping the shelves bare. Is this accurate? It doesn’t seem so to me. When the individual warehouses run out we are waiting on the manufacturer. We have put limits on paper products, eggs, milk, bread, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, water, and soda. As of yesterday milk and bread have been lifted; eggs went from 1 package to 4. We have been getting toilet paper in. Not alot. Maybe 4 cases at a time. And it is sold out within a few hours.

How are your coworkers supporting each other? Yes! I work with a fantastic group of people. We have always been supportive of each other. The location I work at is in a lower income area and has always been known for having a tougher clientele. We get yelled at a lot over things that are not in our control.

What percentage of customers are practicing social distancing? What are some examples of people violating this standard? As the weeks have gone by, people are getting better with the social distancing. We have way more than 10 people in a group. On average we have more than 10 associates just on the front end. We have had a customer spit on an associate because there is a limit on eggs. We also had a customer spit on another customer.

How can customers support grocery and retail staff? Keep your distance. Please stop yelling at us. Most of us do not know when we are getting our next truck and we do not know what is on the next truck. Honestly, if we had our way the whole store would be stocked nice and full and we would never run out of anything! We usually shop after our shifts are over so we are not getting toilet paper either.

How is your family holding up? The other day I was late to work (I hate being late) because my family as a unit was having a breakdown and it was more important for me to be home and get us all figured out than to be at work . I was an hour late to work. It was worth it. When I got home things were ok. My kids are in college so all of their classes have figured out how to be online. They also worked at the college, so right now I am the only one working. I will have to figure out how to cover their bills along with my own.

How long can you and your team keep up this pace? I’m not sure. We are all stressed out. Most are having trouble sleeping. Panic attacks seem to be the new norm. We work because we have to. Some are terrified to get sick and bring it home to our families. We are so fatigued when we get home. I know some of my co workers feel the governor is overreacting, so when you talk to them you get a sense they think the same about you. But, when I get home and see the news, I feel like I was not keeping myself as safe as I should have.

If you could put in place a structure to keep food available, keep employees safe, and keep the public safe, what would that look like now? Limit the amount of people in the store at one time & keep limits on high demand items.

What long term changes would you make? Customers having to take their bottles to a redemption area and not grocery stores. They can get gross! People pee in bottles, spit in bottles, and if it doesn’t get into the machine properly we have to handle them ourselves. I really like using reuseable bags and would like customers to bag their own groceries. (I have seen bugs in people’s bags and have had bags smell like cat pee.)

Do you think the public will have a new appreciation for grocery store employees? Why or why not? I really hope so! It is weird to go from being looked down on by so many people to now having some thank us for doing our job.

Honestly, if we had our way the whole store would be stocked nice and full and we would never run out of anything! We usually shop after our shifts are over so we are not getting toilet paper either.

Do your coworkers all make $15 an hour with benefits? Would that help? No they do not currently make $15 an hour. If you are part time they have some sort of package that you can purchase at a reduced rate for medical insurance. It is not the same as the package full timers can purchase. At the moment, a new associate gets paid $11.80 an hour. If you take on more responsibility at work you still get paid the same amount as a new employee. I am not sure how I feel about $15 an hour. I feel it would be helpful, but at the same time I know it will not help me. The last few years minimum wage has gone up $0.70 an hour each year and my raises have been a lot less than that. When I get a raise it is less than 1% of my income. At the rate minimum wage is going up, in a few years I will be making minimum wage after over 30 years of service.

Can employees get reasonable access to store food and groceries for their own households? If customers think we are having special treatment and saving things for our own households they get mad. By the time we can do our shopping the high demand items are already gone.

Is “hazard pay” a viable way to support your colleagues? We are receiving $2.00 an hour extra until this is over. For an associate that works 40 hours a week that’s $80.00. Some days that doesn’t seem enough for risking my life and the life of my family. I guess it’s better than nothing.

Have any of your coworkers tested positive? No, not yet . I’m sure some have been exposed to covid-19.

How are you sleeping? Are you eating right? I am not sleeping well. I am so tired all the time. When I get home from work the last think I want to do is cook food. If I pick up any groceries on my way home from work I will wash them. Then I will shower. Then grab something simple to eat. I’m so tired after work that I just want to sit and relax for a little bit. Then I want to go to bed. Once I am in bed then my mind will race and I cant fall asleep.

Are you afraid? Sometimes very much so other times I’m ok. I have lyme disease and one of my kids has it also. So having a compromised immune system is scary. My every day is flu like symptoms so how will I know if I’m sick? I have to work to pay my bills. So I have no choice to expose myself to danger every day. Some days I feel like we will all get it. Just the question is when.

What do you want people to know about your experiences? Grocery store employees, heck, any retail employee doesn’t deserve to be treated poorly. We have families we are trying to support and make a better life for. If you are nice to us we will try our hardest to help you. Some things are out of our control and we can not fix it no matter how much you yell at us.

Even those of with good intentions probably make mistakes. What practical suggestions do you have for shoppers? Many are wearing gloves and masks. Which is fine. However, some are still touching their face with their gloves on and not washing their hands after using the restroom. You are getting germs on your gloves and passing them around just like you would with your bare hands . Licking your gloved finger to count your money is worse than licking your bare finger because you have a false sense of security. Having a mask on your face with it under your chin does not help. It should cover your nose and mouth

One of the things my company has been doing for us associates is they gave each location an allowance that we can spend as we wish on ourselves. This allowance is being used to purchase snacks for our associates. My store manager as been posting the good comments customers have been leaving on the survey. She is trying to boost morale at this trying time.

Thank you, my friend, for a sobering reflection on what our essential workers endure each day.

Again if you would like to donate/tip this front-line essential worker, you can Paypal.me/Pghlesbian and I will forward to her.


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