Grocery workers scared, exhausted

Video by Emma Ruderman

Emma Ruderman, Special to The Oak Leaf

As a Whole Foods Market employee for three years, Jade, 22, has seen the store through many disasters, including the wildfires in 2017 and 2019. Nothing has compared to the pandemic.

“I get anxious coming to work because I don’t know what I’m going to encounter,” said Jade, who asked that her last name not be used. “My mom has asthma, so I’m risking her health every time I come into work. But life is expensive. Education is expensive. I feel that I have not much of a choice.” 

Amidst the panic and chaos of COVID-19, grocery store workers around the world fear for their lives when they go to work. Many close to home feel the same. Sonoma County grocery store workers put their lives on the line to serve the community, but they say they aren’t receiving the respect they deserve in return.

“It takes a lot of mental energy to deal with customers looking at me like I’m the problem or yelling at me if I’m accidentally too close to them,” Jade said. “I’ve had a customer yell at me when I asked if I could grab a product off the shelf that they’re standing in front of. She raised her voice and said she wasn’t going to move for me and that I shouldn’t even be there.”

Grocery store workers worldwide have suddenly become the pillars of the community and are being called heroes, essential and selfless. But many don’t have a choice. And local store employees — many who attend Santa Rosa Junior College — are scared, stressed and exhausted. 

“We are human beings who also have families that we have to go home to, whom of course, we don’t want to get sick,” Jade said. “Customers come once every week or two; we come five days a week. Be kind to us. We don’t want to get sick just as much as you don’t.”

Jade wishes the public would extend more compassion to “essential” workers. “Right now it’s just a word. I don’t feel like customers view us as essential. But I view us as essential,” Jade said.

Costco supervisor Carter Pardo, 23, an SRJC student who has worked at Costco since 2017, watched as Costco began limiting customers and supplies and mounted shields around each and every register. All employees and customers who enter are required to wear face masks at all times. 

“Since the outbreak, Costco has taken tremendous steps to protect not only us employees but the customers as well,” Pardo said.

At the beginning of the outbreak, there was chaos in Costco, as people hurriedly grabbed products from the shelves before they ran out of stock. However, now that the coronavirus is old news, the rush has begun to die down. To accommodate the influx of customers, Costco, like many other grocery stores, has changed its store hours. It now opens as early as 8 a.m. for an hour of senior shopping before opening to the general public. 

“All of a sudden we were expected to show up to work at 6 a.m. or earlier to set up,” Pardo said. “It was a rough few weeks as with the opening earlier. It encouraged customers to begin to camp outside the warehouse, some as early as 5 a.m.” 

But Pardo is grateful to be able to work, nonetheless. With his family stuck inside and fearful to leave the house, he is glad to get the opportunity to safely socialize and make some money. 

“In all honesty it doesn’t really bother me that much,” Pardo said. “While it can be tiring at times, such as getting up earlier, facing the frantic customers and increasing my chances of getting the virus, it also gives me an excuse to socialize with the outside world. I actually enjoy getting the chance to see people, and the extra $2 an hour doesn’t hurt either.”

Unfortunately, not all grocery stores are handling this pandemic as well as Costco.

At Whole Foods Market, all employees are required to wear masks and gloves during their shift. They have their temperature taken by a temperature gun intended for refrigerators before they clock in. If an employee calls in sick, they must not attend work the following three days.  

While Costco is letting in 40 to 60 customers at a time, the substantially smaller Whole Foods Market is letting in around 95 customers, not counting the 70-plus employees working at a time. Even if WFM (Whole Foods Market) employees and customers were trying to stay 6 feet apart from each other, it is nearly impossible to do at all times. 

Julia, 19, a WFM employee and Santa Rosa Junior College student who asked that her last name not be used, has been an Amazon Prime Now shopper for the past four months. She has experienced just how difficult it is to social distance in a crowded and anxiety-filled store. 

“I mostly feel safe at work but I don’t think they are limiting the amount of customers in the store as well as they could,” Julia said. “It’s not a small store, but when you have a bunch of employees and are allowing a lot of customers in as well, it gets really hard to follow social distancing guidelines and properly do your job.”

For Jade, Julia and many others, going into work has become mentally and physically exhausting. They are afraid and overwhelmed. 

Work is no longer just a job but a battlefield. An eight-hour shift means wearing an uncomfortable mask and trying to keep the peace. In the two months since the shelter-in-place order began, Julia has seen enormous changes.

“It was really stressful,” she said. “The first few weeks that we had a huge increase in online orders, and everything was changing in the store and in our lives. I think I have the mindset now where I have to be ready for everything to be changed every time I go into work. I never know what’s coming next.”

Other WFM employees feel the same way. Andy, who asked that her last name not be used, is a 20-year-old cashier and Amazon Prime Now shopper. She has worked at WFM for a year and a half. Her job has also become substantially more difficult and demanding. 

“I feel like I am under a lot of pressure to keep people safe, but I am not taken seriously,” she said. “When I try to remind customers of social distancing rules at the registers, they get annoyed and defensive with me. They have eliminated baggers, so I often have to bag large grocery hauls by myself since customers usually don’t offer to help. Doing so while wearing a mask makes me feel like I can’t breathe properly and my hands are dry and cracked from constant hand washing and glove use. My body is in constant pain.”

Since grocery stores have now become one of the few places the public are allowed to go, it makes sense that they are looking for socialization. However, they don’t know the pressure that puts on the employees. 

“I’ve had people come up to my register with no mask on and angrily tell me about how the coronavirus is not real and that the infection rate is basically nothing,” Andy said. “And then when I don’t respond to them, they just start talking sh*t about how stupid people are.” 

Andy also said customers will approach her and begin talking about how hard of a time this is for them and how stressed they are at home. 

“It’s just stressful to have people constantly bring up the pandemic when I’m living it and risking myself for my job. I feel for them,” Andy said. “But I am not a therapist, and it’s a lot to ask of me to carry all their emotional baggage while I am just trying to stay afloat and keep myself together.”

WFM employees are held to high safety expectations, while not feeling safe themselves. When they try to remind customers of safety rules they have at times been met with negativity and spitefulness. Complaints have been filed because of an employee getting too close to a customer, despite team members’ best efforts. It’s hard to not feel hopeless when put in this situation.

“I wish people understood that a lot of us did not sign up to have a potentially life threatening job,” Andy said. “A lot is being asked of us, and we are just doing the best we can. Please do not make our job harder than it needs to be.” 

COVID-19 has impacted Oliver’s Market as well. According to employees, the management has responded positively, putting up dividers, wiping down carts and limiting the store to 50 customers at a time. However, many employees have had their hours cut. The store hours have changed to 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with seniors only shopping from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.

Adrian Macias, 20, and Savannah Falcone, 20, work at two different Oliver’s Markets, both for about two years. Macias works in the taquería and Falcone in the bakery. They feel that Oliver’s has taken great measures to ensure safety and seems to be doing a good job at preventing spreading.

However, Falcone and her bakery coworkers have had quite a few of their hours cut as demand for fresh goods has declined.

“My employer gave everyone a $2 raise, but my direct supervisor immensely cut my hours back, so I am definitely making way less than I was,” Falcone said. “There’s a lot less people to make drinks for though, and a lot of the lines have become shorter.” 

Macias and many of his taqueria coworkers have also had their hours cut. Since he works with hot food, similar to the bakery, the demand has declined substantially. 

“Since there is less business in the taquería, many coworkers have had to move to support cashiers in the front,” Macias said.

Macias has a different take on the term “essential worker” than Jade. He believes that it should be applied to doctors and medical professionals and not as a way to highlight being forced to work during uncertain conditions.

He said it shouldn’t be used “as an excuse to keep working class people working and affecting vulnerable people in our communities,” he said. “I’m not some sort of hero for working a minimum wage job, and no amount of money will comfort the fact that my life is in danger constantly because I have to feed my mom and I.”