Soldiering On Through The Pandemic

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May 15, 2020 11:21 a.m.

A TPM member checks in from the retail sector. It’s tough out there. We all know that. But this story (name withheld because of the details about the member’s workplace) offers a measured snapshot of the difficult choices employees and managers in essential businesses have been facing for weeks. The member’s evenness, lack of anger or rancor, and perseverance in the face of the daily challenges the pandemic presents are admirable.

Hi you guys, I am a member and wanted to offer, if no one else has, some insight on what it is like working in a grocery store right now.

I am an assistant manager for a small regional chain of stores that is still family-owned.  We began getting massive crowds and lines of customers stocking up on groceries around the second week of March.  At that time, although management was aware of the situation, they were debating how to handle it, so business was conducted as normal.

Our stores were extremely crowded all day, every day.  Every time the governor made another announcement, we would have a burst of even bigger crowds for a day or two.  Needless to say, there was no social distancing for anyone, and at that time, very few people were wearing masks.  We were instructed to do more cleaning (wiping down carts, wiping down registers and door handles more frequently, etc.), but that was the only action that was being taken. No employees wore masks.  They made fun of the customers who did.

I don’t want to cast blame on my employers for a slow response here, because I understand that they were dealing with something that they had never encountered before, and had to consider all the ramifications for the business if they instituted major changes in how we conducted daily operations.  But they did offer unpaid leave with job security and health insurance security to anyone who felt unsafe.  At that point, employee illness was handled the same as always, with folks calling out if they felt sick and just coming back as soon as they felt better.  And that is what prompted me to take advantage of that unpaid leave.  I have family members who are high risk and are staying home, and I didn’t want to bring the virus to them.

I was out for five weeks, and when I came back, masks and gloves for everyone, social distancing, and required masks for customers were in place.  This does make me feel a lot safer and worry less about getting ill and making my family sick.  However, we are not talking about a medical facility here.  The masks often don’t fit well and both employees and customers sometimes walk around with masks that are slipped down almost to the bottom of their mouths and not covering their noses.  As a manager, I am the one required to remind them to pull them up, which involves getting close to an unmasked person.  I am also the one who has to confront customers who refuse to wear a mask.  And now I have to take the temperature of each employee as he comes in, which requires getting quite close to them.

Furthermore, a lot of employees do what is required of them for their job, but then go and eat their lunch close together in the break rooms.  It’s clear that they either don’t understand why the policies are there or are not taking them seriously; thus, they stop being careful the minute they’re not required to be.

I have some medical training and, in my experience, there are two types of people who can stick to these measures consistently:  people who have major health awareness issues, whether reasonable or not; and people who have undergone rigorous medical training to instill a certain mindset.  Most grocery store employees tend to be young and healthy, because the work can be very physical, and they are not afraid or even often aware of the possibility of becoming seriously ill.  They just don’t think about this stuff and think of it as something that customers are worried about, but they don’t need to be.  Ironically, if there is a cold or flu going around, we usually are passing it to each other rather than getting it from customers.  In those cases, employees often work sick because of a toughness mindset and not wanting to let their coworkers down.  We use the same phones and other equipment; we’re handing each other products all day; if the store is busy, we have to stand close to each other in order to be able to hear each other speak.

In short, we employees are the greatest danger to each other, and we are not doing a very good job of protecting each other.  I’m not angry about that and I understand where it’s coming from; wearing a mask and gloves all day is hard and uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically.  I have a rash on my face from wearing my mask, my ears hurt constantly from the chafing of the straps, and I can’t see half the time because I wear glasses and they fog up whenever I exhale.  My hands are simultaneously sweaty and literally painful from all the washing.  It’s not fun, and the second I’m off the sales floor, I want to immediately rip my mask off.  But I don’t, if I’m in an office with fellow employees, and I think the only thing stopping me is my greater awareness of epidemiology and hygiene due to my past training.  A lot of my coworkers do pull their masks off right away.

If one of the management gets sick, we will all need to go into quarantine because we meet once a week and interact with each other in close quarters.  We haven’t had any official positive COVID tests, but we’ve had several employees out for two weeks with “COVID-like symptoms” who have not been tested.  Ironically, the employees would get two free weeks of paid leave if they tested positive, but so far no one has opted to get tested.

It will be very interesting to see what happens if a manager ever tests positive. Will the store shut down because all the managers are in quarantine?  Or will we be instructed to carry on and wait to see whether any of us get sick, for the sake of the company? I have no idea.  We’re living day to day.

Thanks for listening and keep doing what you’re doing.

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