Overwhelmed and uneasy: Working in a grocery store during the pandemic

Kate Dempsey graduated from Darien High in 2019 and was editor of the Neirad, the high school newspaper. Her mother, Yvonne Dempsey, a school nurse at Ox Ridge School, has been volunteering at Darien High’s coronavirus testing site to help administer tests. She works in an area grocery store that she is intentionally keeping anonymous.

Scan items. Sanitize gloves. Give back change. Sanitize gloves. New customer. Sanitize gloves. Glove ripped. Sanitize hands. New gloves. Sanitize gloves.

This new process has become like second nature to me. If you had told me that I was going to be one of the few still working at a grocery store as a 19-year-old during COVID-19, a pandemic for the history books, I would have thought you were crazy. Like so many, I barely recognize my life now. I have to mentally prepare myself before I go to work, a sort of pep talk like I’m about to go play the biggest game of my life every single day. “It’s ok you’re fine it’s ok try not to worry forget everything it’s just any other day.”

Working one hour really feels like we have worked two, and is marked by a constant veil of paranoia on top of the usual stress at work. Social distancing to us means dancing around customers. I get scared whenever someone gets too close, and I start to panic when someone comes right up to me; we feel helpless when we get caught around a lot of customers.

We hand sanitize and wash our hands incessantly. There’s no such thing as overkill now, and there’s no pretending about what’s happening. Casual talk seems ridiculous even if it’s the only sense of normalcy. Customers no longer talk about their favorite must-have products because everything is now a must-have. It’s hard to keep up with the newest rules and regulations, which is unreal because the changes have been so gradual.

Wearing a mask for eight hours makes us feel light-headed and almost cross-eyed from staring down at it resting on our noses, which has increased the difficulty of stocking and lifting heavy boxes by ten-fold.

Once we’ve closed and it’s time to stock, my coworkers and I usually have fun cracking jokes and making fun of the sometimes cheesy music that we blast. Now, laughing feels almost like a betrayal in a time like this (although “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police seems to be a quintessential jam right now). We feel uneasy, always waiting for something to give in. We can’t even give each other our usual signs of comfort and support: hugs, laughs, and high-fives.

We are working so hard, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. I feel like running away from this situation but there is, of course, nowhere to run to now. We’ve faced a few moments that have really freaked us out, such as when all of our shelves went empty in the beginning signaling the onset of the apocalypse, to terror when we heard of people attacking workers at other grocery stores. How innocent it all seemed at the way beginning when we thought people buying ten gallons of milk was funny.

Overwhelmed seems like an underwhelming word to describe what we’re going through. I’ve heard many of my coworkers say they feel broken down and how they will go home and cry if they haven’t already cried at work, which is something that I have done (a vulnerability that is not easy for me to admit).

It’s sad to see all of my coworkers like this when we’re usually upbeat and goofy. We’re a little frustrated. We didn’t sign up for this: it definitely wasn’t in my job description. Forced to accept what feels like a whole new job, I went from an everyday grocery store worker giving you your change and showing you where certain items are located to a local hero. Maybe this is a societal perspective: we are usually considered background to the workings of society and suddenly we’ve all been elevated.

I would be lying if I said the amount of rude customers hasn’t increased. It’s hard to stick up for ourselves due to the classic mentality of the customer always being right. Many are mean and take their anxiety out on us. Many probably assume that because we are still out here working and being friendly that we are not dealing with this horrible situation. We are all facing the same fears. We also get to go right back to our homes at the end of the day, but when we wake up the next day we have to go through it all over again.

With no end in sight, we’re unsure how much longer we can handle this new stress, though by now we have become numb to the “new normal.” So many have told us that it’s like going to the frontlines of a war, albeit an invisible one. If that’s so, then working at the register is like being on the beach at D-Day, with plexiglass as our barricade. We’re soldiers with no training and not enough protective gear.

We have not been trained to wash our hands like professionals such as doctors or nurses nor the proper technique to put on and take off masks, not for the lack of trying from management. We’re unsafe being constantly exposed to the public. Some of my coworkers feel that we are being sacrificed or that we’re martyrs. Customers tell me how brave I am and how grateful they are that I’m here.

Maybe I look brave because I put on a brave face every time I go to work. I guess having a mask to cover up half my face helps to hide some of my true emotions. I feel weird being compared to the healthcare workers. My own mom, a nurse who volunteers at the drive-thru testing in town, seems like the actual frontline hero. However, I’ve come to realize our increased role in this pandemic.

People need to eat, and as essential workers we need to make sure people get their supplies.

Many of my coworkers don’t have the privilege of working from home. In fact, I recognize my own privilege. I don’t necessarily have to work, and I’m risking my health and my family’s health. So why do I still choose to go back to work every day? A part of me wants to support my coworkers who have become like a family to me. Another part recognizes I’m statistically not as endangered due to my youth.

My store needs younger people like me continuing to work, as fears of becoming understaffed rise due to many coworkers taking a leave of absence.

Maybe a part of me also realizes that going to work helps maintain a sense of normal life for me, a sentiment that my coworkers have also echoed. I still feel guilty nonetheless. Unemployment is skyrocketing and I try my best to donate as much as I can to local organizations such as Person to Person to supply families with desperately needed food. Yet, I still feel like I’m not doing my part. Perhaps this is a sentiment we’re all feeling: we want to do more to help but are unable to.

I’m proud to be working alongside my family of coworkers, and I’m so proud of them for all the hard work they’re doing. My only comfort is knowing that I’m not alone in how I feel.

I’m writing this article in part to have our voices heard and to show our side of dealing with this pandemic, which is a rare perspective from the only people you will now see when you leave your homes.

We still hope to make you smile, laugh, and perhaps not feel so isolated and lonely. I myself still try to find the positive. My commute that usually takes 15 minutes now only takes 5. Customers gift us flowers and gratefulness. I can add bouncer to my resume from working the line outside. I already see how much stronger we’ll all be once this is over.

The only thing we wish people could understand is that there has been nothing to prepare us for this: the situation we’re in is novel like the virus itself. The one thing that hasn’t been stressed enough to get us collectively through this is by being kind to each other. I’m hoping that when this is finally over we will no longer be part of the background, that society’s humility will grow. We will be able to give each other hugs again, and perhaps through all this we will have grown in being there for one another, not based on our job but on what we all share: being human.