EVA ZHU – Joan Espidido feels strange being called a hero; she doesn’t think she deserves the title. But as an essential service employee, her life is on the line.
Espidido, 23, has been working as a cashier at a Real Canadian Superstore in Vancouver for a little over four years. She first donned the work uniform – a royal blue t-shirt with her name written in sharpie – as a freshman at Simon Fraser University. She’s now in her final term, studying Health Sciences.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Espidido usually worked no more than 12 hours a week. But recently, as Superstore has been faced with hordes of shoppers frantically stocking up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other non-perishable supplies, her hours have almost doubled.
Surprisingly, the extra shifts don’t bother Espidido. She understands the risks that come with working at a crowded grocery store, but her days have been more or less the same. She’s so used to being at the bottom of ‘the totem pole’ that suddenly being a big deal feels odd. No one used to thank her for helping them scan their items.
To thank its employees for continuing to work during the outbreak, Loblaws Inc., Superstore’s parent company, has given each person a 15 per cent raise. CBC and CTV news reported that two other large supermarket chains, Sobeys and Metro, have also increased wages for their employees. Sobey’s is giving an extra $50 a week to its employees, as well as an extra $2 per hour to those who work over 20 hours a week. Metro is increasing wages by $2 an hour as well.
While Mark Dobson, the Atlantic representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada says in the CBC article that an extra $2 isn’t enough for the hard work grocery store employees do, Espidido feels otherwise. She’s currently paid around $16 per hour, up from the $14 she was making before the pandemic.
“It’s pretty fair, especially since they weren’t mandated to give [me] a raise,” she says.
No one knows if the pay raises are going to be permanent or if they’ve only been implemented to reward employees’ efforts. Dobson isn’t confident the increased wages are going to stay.
When asked what she thinks, Espidido laughed and remarked, “I wish this was permanent!”
While crowds have dwindled in the last couple of weeks, Espidido has experienced her fair share of panic buying. She remembered encountering two women who fit the bill perfectly. She said one woman bought five 30-pack toilet paper rolls. The other woman, Espidido said, “had like $200 worth of medicine. She bought three big bottles of Tylenol and Advil.”
Although Superstore has no way of curbing panic buying, they’ve stopped taking refunds for unopened items and set limits for hot commodity items like toilet paper and Lysol wipes. However, this hasn’t stopped some people from buying close to $1000 worth of groceries.
To prove her point, Espidido recounts the time she walked past a fellow cashier’s till and caught sight of a customer standing beside a cart overflowing with produce and meat products. Chuckling, Espidio said, “This woman spent more than $900! She had to get the system to override her purchase. It was crazy expensive.”
Unlike her coworker, Espidido doesn’t work as a traditional cashier. Instead, she spends her shifts manning the self-checkout machines. While she’s glad to have more than a sheet of plexiglass between her and a customer, having to sanitize each machine, ensure customers are following item limits and answer countless questions and complaints have taken their toll.
Since there’s no one helping her clean the self-checkout machines, Espidido, standing at only 5’1, can’t run around fast enough to wipe them down.
She recalls being yelled at by a man who rushed to check out before she could wipe the machine. He scolded her about not cleaning the machines between each customer, which she was. Looking worn out, she says, “I just found that super frustrating. I understand that he’s stressed about cleanliness because [of the] virus, but give me a break. There’s only one of me and I can only be in one place at a time.”
Espidido says it doesn’t matter how many nice customers thank her for being on the frontlines, it only takes a few people to completely ruin her day. “It stays with you,” she explains, “It sucks.”
After years of being berated by annoyed customers, Espidido says she’s become pretty good at ignoring the occasional rude comment. But when there seems to be a never-ending stream of complaints in an already tiring eight-hour shift, it gets to her. The thought of coming back every morning and facing a new wave of customers is mentally exhausting.
Dealing with hundreds of strangers every day was never her favourite pastime, but she’s never felt this overworked. She no longer wants to work in Superstore or deal with the public.
Irate customers aren’t the only cause of Espidido’s mental exhaustion. Like many millennials, she’s also finishing up her post-secondary education. If all goes well, this will be her last semester at Simon Fraser University. While taking one final class might not seem that difficult, it’s a completely new ballpark when the material is taught online.
Instead of attending a three-hour in person seminar each week, she logs onto Blackboard Collaborate, an application similar to Zoom, for an online lecture. Espidido doesn’t think seminars, which prioritize class participation, should be held online. She no longer gets to have a quick discussion with her professor or hash out homework assignments with classmates after class.
Before the end of the semester, Espidido still needs to turn in a PowerPoint presentation and a lengthy paper. Just the paper, she says, will take her at least a couple of weeks to research and write. She’ll need another week to put the presentation together.
Although this amount of work is doable for students with no other commitments, Espidido is feeling burnt out.
Trying to balance school and work is causing severe sleep deprivation.
In the last few weeks, she’s been scheduled morning shifts, which run from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. She gets up at six. After arriving home, she’s so tired that homework has to wait until after a nap. Around six or 7 p.m., she starts on an assignment. By the time she’s finished, it’s 3 a.m. Three hours later, she’s back to getting up for an eight-hour shift. She takes another nap, works on a different assignment and sleeps again at 3 a.m.
It’s a vicious cycle, but she has no other choice.
Espidido says she tries to fight off the mid-afternoon nap, but it’s a struggle. “You’re just…tired. You try to go to bed early, but you have to finish an assignment because you know you’re not going to have time the next day. An essay and a presentation don’t seem to be a lot of work, but factoring [in] going to work for that many hours and then having to do that every time. It’s exhausting. It builds up.”
To keep up with her demanding schedule, she’s resorted to eating more and drinking three cups of coffee a day. It’s not much of a self-care routine, but it’s comforting, considering she goes to bed dreading work the next day.
Keeping her family safe
The possibility of contracting COVID-19 is always in the back of Espidido’s mind, but she doesn’t let the fear overwhelm her. She needs to stay calm for her parents and her two brothers.
Her mom and older brother are the only ones lucky enough to stay home. Her dad is a maintenance employee for the city of Coquitlam and her younger brother also works at Superstore, in the meat department.
Espidido’s dad’s chances of contracting the coronavirus is slim. The last time she asked him about work, he said, “I’m really happy I don’t work with the public. I’m only working with a team of two or three people. The only chance I’ll get the virus is if one of my colleagues have it.”
Other than mentioning how annoyed and bored he was, her younger brother didn’t say much.
To stay safe, the family isn’t taking any chances. The second someone comes home from work, they immediately take a shower and put their work clothes in the laundry hamper. Outerwear, shoes and bags stay downstairs.
Her parents are stressed, but no one seems to have entered a state of paranoia just yet. Espidido says the atmosphere at home feels relatively normal.
“My parents are happy I’m [earning] more money. They tell me to be cautious and wash my hands all the time.”
Getting through this
Espidido’s not sure if she can work double hours at Superstore for much longer. However, she’s incredibly grateful for all the nice customers who thank her, even if she doesn’t quite feel like a hero. She’s also thankful for shoppers who help keep her safe at work by wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.
She’s is hopeful things will return to normalcy in a few months.
This article was originally published on April 7, 2020 in Telling the Story using Integrated Media.