On the job during COVID-19, Part 1: The grocery-store clerk

TVO.org speaks with a grocery-store employee about public panic, angry customers, and why he and his co-workers need help
By Matt Gurney - Published on Mar 25, 2020
Grocery stores have been declared an essential service by the Ontario government. (Dominic Chan/CP)

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In January of this year, TVO.org ran three articles asking whether and what Canada had learned from the SARS outbreak of 2003. At the time, we had hoped that the novel coronavirus that had emerged in Wuhan, China, would be contained. That didn’t happen, and now Canada, alongside most countries in the world, is coping with what has quickly become the most serious threat to life and public safety this country has seen since the Second World War. With Ontario under a state of emergency, TVO.org is interviewing the front-line personnel we don’t often hear from, the ones keeping society functioning while millions of us stay safe at home. Today: a grocery-store clerk for one of the major supermarket chains. He has asked to remain anonymous, as he is currently employed by the company.

Matt Gurney: Before we get into the details of the pandemic, let’s go back in time two months. If I’d asked you to describe your job then, to tell me about a day in the life, what would you have said?

Grocer: I’ve been doing this for almost two decades. I started when I was in high school. I also do some artistic work, so I have always stayed on at the supermarket — the same one all these years, a smaller outlet of a major chain grocer in Toronto. I’ve been around long enough that I can basically do it all. Even though I’m technically only part-time, I often end up working full-time hours, and I’ve even filled in for the managers. Mostly now, I work in produce, but, like I said, I can and have done it all.

Gurney: So tell me about a day in the life before, well … all this happened.

Grocer: [laughs] Yeah. It’s a lot. Well, it depends. It depends on the job I’m doing that day and also what day it is. My store normally would do an order day every other day. On order days, that’s when we do an inventory of what we have and identify what we’re low on. We deliver that inventory to the store manager, and he passes it up the chain to our corporate suppliers. The company has distribution hubs that can hold way more product than any store can stock. And then the company would send our requested goods to us, and we’d get it out onto the shelves and display counters in time for the next day. It’s honestly just your best guess. Sometimes something sells really well while it’s on sale, but then it goes off sale, and you realize you’ve ordered way more than you’ll sell. And, sometimes, rarely, there’s a problem with the supply. So we might order 100 crates of something but only get 80.

Gurney: Sorry to interrupt, but what kinds of problems did you used to run into — before all this?

Grocer: Oh, lots. Sometimes just shipping delays. Maybe there was bad weather or a storm. Sometimes something might be out of season, or maybe the strawberries, just to pick one item, are bad that year, and people aren’t buying them. Or maybe they’re great, and everyone is buying them. Our store managers try to stay on top of that, and, if there’s problem with the supply, the corporate guys try to arrange a new supply. Purchasing agents would try to find more inventory or an alternate inventory item — or at least communicate down to us if there’s a temporary disruption.

Gurney: So you see that you’re running low on potatoes or asparagus or something, and you tell a manager, and the manager tells corporate, and you get sent more from a distribution centre. And it’s fast.

Grocer: Right. Like I said: we’re small, so we normally could do an order day every other day. Some places, it’s constant. Some bigger stores are placing orders and restocking every day. Anyway, so some days I’m stocking the counters and counting the inventory. Other days, I’m writing the orders and writing staff schedules. I’ve filled in for everyone. And I try to be helpful. My neighbourhod has a lot of retirement homes. A lot of seniors. I try to be courteous and helpful. But, most days, most of the time, it’s pretty banal. Hard physical work but often pretty boring.

Gurney: This is kind of a vague question, but again, up until about two months ago, things would have worked well? The system worked?

Grocer: Oh, for sure. Little glitches here and there, like I said. But, overall, we’d get what we wanted, and we’d keep the shelves and counters stocked. The problems were always marginal. The system worked.

Gurney: When did you first notice that things were weird? What was your first “wow, something is happening” moment?

Grocer: I’d heard about what was happening in Wuhan and then in other places. So I was aware. But no one seemed too worried. And then, suddenly, it hit. I have to think about when exactly it was. It was before they shut down the NBA and the NHL. [Editor’s note: March 12th.] It was the weekend before that. So there wasn’t any big public panic yet. [laughs] And it was toilet paper! Toilet paper and paper towel. It was just flying off the shelves. And, at first, I was, like, huh, well, okay. The sale is working! We had a good price that weekend. But it was intense. I noticed how panicked people were coming in. And, at first, I was like, I don’t need any right now. But then I thought, you know what? I should stock up, too. So I did!

Gurney: And that was before the NBA and NHL suspensions. I was out of the country on an ill-timed vacation, but that was when it seemed to me that people really got alarmed.

Grocer: The first surge was before that, yeah. That was, like, a Wednesday or a Thursday, but the paper panic had hit the weekend before. But, after the hockey and baseball cancellations, yeah. Wow. That was a spike. Not just in terms of volume of shopping. We definitely were busier than normal. But I also noticed the fear and the panic. Even before that, even when people were buying the toilet paper or paper towel, there was a bit of a dismissive attitude. And among my colleagues, too. But, after the sports cancellations, there was open fear. People were buying everything.

Gurney: You told me above that you try to be polite with everyone. Let’s talk about the shoppers. Have you noticed a change in them?

Grocer: Yeah. Yeah. Look, 98 per cent of the people I see are polite. They just do their thing. When you work in a grocery store, honestly, you’re invisible. We do our job; people leave us alone unless they need help. They’re blasé. If anything, if there’s been a change, people are nicer. They’re more appreciative. They’re thankful. But there’s that other 2 per cent. The assholes. They don’t believe this pandemic is real. They say it’s bullshit, and they don’t want to be told to keep their distance. And I have to say, I have the easier job. The cashiers have it worse. People yell at them. I had to intervene when one of our cashiers, just a small woman, like, maybe five feet tall, was being screamed at by a grown man. I had to swear at the guy and threaten to throw him out. That’s not normal. So this is bringing out the worst in some people. But not too many. But if you asked a cashier, honestly, they might have a very different perspective. They have to talk to people. I can miss a lot of that. The cashiers are front line, all day, every day. They experience more anger and stress than we do. People get angry over us being out of product or, lately, the lineups. There are more people shopping than I’ve seen in a decade.

But one thing I’d say — stop bringing your families. Stop bringing your kids. Grocery stories aren’t social clubs. Respect the self-isolation rules. I have to be there. I’m around everyone all day, every day. Since grocery stores are allowed to be open, people seem to think it’s like Mad Max — the rules apply outside the building, not in it. And, if anything — honestly, Matt? The risks are heightened. It’s not business as usual for us right now. We have to be there, and we are exposed to everyone.

Gurney: You said the first thing you noticed was the run on paper products. What was next?

Grocer: I assumed — well, I guess I hoped — that once people realized that the food supply was okay, the panic would settle down. And I guess it has, but only to a degree. Frozen items are still crazy. We stock it, and it’s gone. Frozen pizzas, bagged French fries, frozen berries. These are gone as soon as they’re on the shelf. That’s maybe slowed down a bit this week. But only a bit. Hardier produce? Gone. Sacks of potatoes? Gone in hours. The panic is still present. In the last week, it’s gotten better, but only a little.

Gurney: How is the supply holding up? We’ve been in self-isolation since we got back from the U.S., but I’m hearing from friends about shortages.

Grocer: Oh, man. Yeah. Flour. Eggs. Cheese. Dairy in general. Pasta! Pasta and pasta sauce. That’s a big one — big. Rice. Anything you dump in a cupboard and it’ll last for a year or so is flying. Canned stuff, including beans. It’s not so much the case now, but last week, yeah. Wow.

Gurney: Let me ask you a really unscientific question. How is it going? Like, out of 100, out of 10, whatever … how are you guys doing now?

Grocer: Every day feels very strange. It feels weirder and weirder every day. If a regular day is 100 per cent normal, we’re at maybe 45? A 50?

Gurney: Is that the workplace vibe or inventory?

Grocer: Both. Everything. The vibe is really weird, though. It’s bad. It’s never been like this. People are scared. People don’t know if they should come in to work. A lot of us can’t afford to take time off. The company is letting people self-isolate if they come back from vacation. But that’s not enough. At any given time, there might be 100 people in the store. At my store, we aren’t counting customers and limiting how many get in. That makes me really upset. We say we’re banning gatherings of more than 50 people, right? Apparently, not if they’re shopping. We’re seeing crowds like we haven’t seen since the ice storm. We’re worried. We could catch something and bring it home. But we can also spread it to other shoppers! I don’t know if people get this. So, yeah. The mood is bad, and when you see a regular customer and talk with them, they’re scared, too. I’ve never seen anything like this.

I guess supplies are a bit less grim. It’s evening itself out. We’re maybe getting half of what we request in. That’s enough to actually stock the shelves. Maybe 50 per cent normal. But the vibe? It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Gurney: What are you hearing from your managers?

Grocer: Our local manager is good. We’re communicating with him. He’s frustrated with the company for not moving faster. But we’re getting paid more now — an extra $2 an hour. [laughs] But communication with our head office or with our union — we’re unionized — is bad. We’re getting prepared statements about how concerned they are about our health.

Gurney: “Your call is important to us.”

Grocer: Yes! Exactly. They’re covering their asses. But they don’t get it. We could get sick. We could make people sick. Emailing me a cut-and-paste form letter isn’t going to cut it. In our employee break room, we have notices from the unions on the wall, and, yeah. The last time I checked it was three or four days out of date. The company needs to take more responsibility. The union needs to step up. I don’t know how people can be expected to keep showing up when they don’t know if they’re going to bring the virus home to their families.

Look, I’m a union guy. My grandfather was a union old-timer. I was raised with it. I believe in it. But our union leadership? They’re self-isolating. They won’t come out to meet with us, no face-to-face. But they say we can call with any concerns. I called. No one answers. I left a bunch of voicemails, and I eventually got a regurgitated form letter. It’s frustrating. I’m angry. My colleagues and I, we care about our customers. We go the extra mile. We have regulars. We know them, and we help them out. But we don’t want to bring this virus home with us.

Gurney: Well, here’s the big question, then. Whether it’s your union or your management, what do you want? What do your colleagues want?

Grocer: I’m not a spokesperson for anyone. So this is just my opinion, and I think a lot of my colleagues would agree. But I’m not speaking on their behalf or anything.

Gurney: Fair enough. Understood.

Grocer: Okay. They’ve done a few things. They’ve adjusted our hours a bit; they’ve given us a small raise. It’s not much, considering how much money they’re making, but okay. It is what it is. But we need more. We need more gloves, more sanitizer, so we can protect ourselves and the customers. There’s not enough. We need to track the number of people in the store. And we need more time in the store without customers. Small adjustments will inconvenience customers, but I’d hope they understood. We need time to clean and stock the store without customers. We need to make better use of the staff — people need a break. We can’t just work every day. We’re not doctors or nurses or police officers, but we’re feeding those people. We need some care, too. Our service is essential. And our health and safety needs to matter. And I mean mental health, too. I’ve had depression and anxiety my whole life. And this is draining. The mental health drain isn’t apparent, but it’s real.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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