Front-line grocery workers share pandemic stories

A worker retrieves carts from the parking lot at Ralphs in Castaic on Thursday, 051321. Dan Watson/The Signal

Editor’s note: The grocery store workers in the story were not named, as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

As panic-filled shoppers swarmed grocery stores across the nation, grocery store workers found themselves thrust onto the front lines of the pandemic.

While the stay-at-home order had yet to be enacted in Los Angeles County, grocery store shelves — especially those holding toilet paper, water and cleaning products — were left bare, resembling a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, as lines of customers wrapped around stores.

Everyone had additional responsibilities and had to “step up their game,” according one deli worker.

Included in those responsibilities was enforcing mask mandates and store capacity limits, which made grocery store workers easy targets for their customers’ frustrations.

“I think the mask does something to people’s psyche, and they are nowhere near as friendly,” the deli employee said, adding that she soon began to learn the value of a simple smile. “You can’t see that (smile anymore), and it just dampened the mood.”

As grocery store supplies continued to dwindle, the pandemic began to disrupt supply chains, and stores were left with no choice but to enforce item limits.

“I can’t tell you how many people were upset when I told them they could only buy five gallons of bleach,” a grocery stocker said.

Despite the upset shoppers, the stocker said he continued to do his best to treat customers with empathy, as he, ultimately, understands where they were coming from.

“This is a scary time, and I still want to be there for them if I can because that’s what I’d want if the situation was reversed,” he added. “I’m 20 and healthy, but what if I wasn’t? I’d be scared, too.”

Walmart workers prepare to load groceries into a car in the online shopping pickup area at Walmart in Valencia on Thursday, 051321. Dan Watson/The Signal

Restaurants and other businesses were soon forced to shut their doors, yet grocery stores remained open, keeping people fed and well supplied as they hunkered down in their homes for the mandated quarantine.

“In the beginning, it was really exciting to be a part of … but as time went on, the appreciation was just not there anymore,” the deli employee said. “It makes it harder to do your job with a smile on your face every day when you encounter so much negativity.”

Then, when the winter COVID-19 surge hit, the fear became more prevalent as the virus began to spread at an increased rate.

“I’ve actually had multiple people come in and tell me they were sick,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Then what are you doing here? Why aren’t you at home where you should be?’”

It’s workers like this deli employee who interact with customers who are at serious risk for infection, an October study found, and are, in fact, five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than their colleagues who don’t have direct contact with customers. 

These workers were also likely to have become a “significant transmission source” without even knowing it, as 76% of the 104 Boston grocery store workers tested for the study were found to be asymptomatic.

“It felt like COVID was everywhere,” a cashier added. “I became hyper-aware of every cough, every sneeze. It was stressful.”

‘We’d become a family’

She and her coworkers kept one another’s spirits up through the fear and anxiety, and then, they became her only emotional support when she tested positive in December.

“I had coworkers bringing me groceries and medicine,” she said. “They did it because they knew I was all alone at home, but more so because we’d become a family.”

Thankfully, her symptoms were mild and she soon found herself back at work, though still concerned for her coworkers.

“I’m honestly just glad I didn’t get any of them sick, because there’s a chance they wouldn’t have been as lucky as I was,” she added.

Though cases began dropping, many workers remained anxious, as they were left to work longer hours still to fill shifts vacated by those who’d either quit or contracted the virus themselves.

“A lot of people (thought) that it’s not worth it for me to put my life on the line, and my family’s life on the line, and they just quit,” the deli employee said.

Adding to the chaos was the decision to grant grocery store workers in L.A. County “hero pay.”

Instituted with the intention of recognizing the risks these workers face, the ordinance was, however, not implemented across the board, with those in unincorporated areas of the county, such as Castaic and Stevenson Ranch, given a $5 per hour raise for 120 days, while those working just across Interstate 5 in Valencia were left out of the “hero pay.”

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” the cashier said, adding that she and her family had been counting on the money. “My husband still hasn’t gotten his job back, so we’ve really been struggling. It’s really not that much more, but we just needed that little extra help to pay some bills and get back on track.”

Grocery store workers were among those praised as “heroes” on the front lines. However, the rhetoric felt futile to most.

“We were told we were essential, (but) we never got a choice,” the deli employee added. “We just got thrown into the midst of it.”

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