SELENA ROMERO – Everyone has their own grocery store routine: some only pick up the necessities, some are drawn to the sale signs and some like to weave through every aisle. The one thing everyone has in common when they grocery shop is the search for the shortest line at the check-out.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the shortest check-out line has become the least of people’s concern.

Grocery stores have limited the number of people who can enter, the ground is covered in tape that marks social distancing protocols and finding toilet paper toilet paper is like finding gold. While consumers are trying to adjust to a new way of navigating the grocery store, the employees are trying to adapt to their new role as essential workers.

Seven months ago, 18-year-old Tori Illman was looking to find a part-time job. she became a cashier at a Sobeys near Oxford Street and Wonderland Road in London, Ont. with no idea of what was in store.

“I thought, ‘I just need a simple part-time job before I go away to school, something I could do for a few months to save money,’” she said. “But I never would’ve thought that we’d be so essential at a time like this.”

When Tori Illman got a job at Sobeys, she was hoping for some extra cash before leaving for college; now she’s an essential worker during a pandemic.

Illman said that in mid-March, panic-buying at her store was at an all-time high; something that experts tried to warn against at the time.

“When everything first started, the store started to get super busy. It was really hard for us to keep up with everything,” she said. “The lines were really long—people had to wait 15 to 20 minutes just to check their stuff out.”

She described a scene of chaos: canned goods, toilet paper, bleach and hand sanitizer were some of the items that were flying off the shelves. As she stood at her till, the panic of customers began to transfer to herself.

“It was really overwhelming having the store be so busy,” she said. “People were irritable, stressed out and worried… I was thinking ‘Oh wow, coronavirus must be getting really serious.’ ”

While many grocery shoppers have the option to shop in bulk, stay home and avoid catching COVID-19, Illman and her co-workers don’t have the same luxury. Each shift puts them out into the public and at risk to get sick.

Illman said she’s thankful that Sobeys, and other grocery chains, provided measures to protect their employees.

In a statement released on March 20, Sobeys said they were taking many precautions to fight against the novel coronavirus, including extra handwashing for employees, increased sanitizing of frequently touched surfaces and reduced store hours.

The latest from our President & CEO, Michael Medline, on the series of additional steps we’re taking to further enhance safety measures in our stores. #COVID19— Sobeys (@sobeys) March 20, 2020

For cashiers like Illman, one of the most noticeable changes in the store is a plexiglass screen that separates customers from employees at the check-out. It’s a simple and effective way to stop the spread of germs between people, and despite the unfriendly nature of speaking through a screen, Illman is happy with the measure.

“We’ve definitely had a lot more rules introduced to make sure that everyone is as safe as possible,” she said.

The plexiglass screens would have been a welcome addition earlier in the month, said 24-year-old Jenna Stafford, Illman’s co-worker and fellow cashier at Sobeys. Stafford said that on the weekend of March 14, she was standing at her till when she felt a scratch in her throat.

“So, I coughed… big mistake,” she said. “There were people across [from me], and they literally left that lane after I coughed. People looked at me and were like ‘Oh I’m not coming to your lane, I don’t want to take any chances.’ ”

Stafford said that despite being a a part-time employee at Sobeys for over a year, during the March 14 weekend she had the biggest order she has ever scanned through: $900 worth of food for a family of two.

Stafford booked the last week off of work for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, and she hasn’t been in store since the changes took place. After she goes to work this weekend, she will no longer be able to see her dad, who’s 73, due to the high-risk of his age and any potential exposure she has at work.

Despite the effects that coronavirus will have on her personal life, she said  that she feels safe going into work, especially with all of the new cleaning and safety measures.

“I’m not nervous to go in to work, but I’m more scared of customer reactions. I’ve heard that some people have been real nasty toward employees,” said Stafford.

Illman confirmed that some customers have been difficult, but she said that she thinks it’s due to the stress of the situation and people being on edge.

“Something I’ve noticed is that it’s more like extremes of people. So, I’ve definitely seen a lot more people who are irritable and nervous, and more who haven’t been very nice,” she said. “But, on the other hand I’ve seen a ton of people who are really nice and appreciative. They’ll go out of their way to thank us.”

While grocery stores can’t control their customers, they have helped make going into work a little easier for employees.

Just days after implementing the in-store changes, Sobeys announced the Hero Pay Program on March 22.

With the pay program in place, employees earn an extra $50 per week, regardless of if they’ve worked or not, starting back from March 8. In addition, those who work over 20-hours per week have an hourly wage increase of $2 per hour.

Because she works over 20-hours per week, Illman is among those who will receive the extra hourly pay.

“It definitely gave myself and other people more motivation to go in. But for myself, I think I would’ve still worked regardless if we got the increase or not because I need my job, and I need money,” she said. “But for the most part it’s made us very appreciative and motivated us to keep coming in and keep working.”

The need for grocery store employees to be motivated to come in is vital amidst coronavirus.  While nearly one million Canadians applied for employment insurance between March 16 to March 22. the added demand for grocery store workers has sky-rocketed since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. At the time of publication, Walmart Canada, Loblaws and Sobeys all had positions posted online for hire in London, Ont.

For Illman, the added employees are much needed. She said that the spirit of her co-workers is not broken, but that more than anything, the employees need a break.

“One of the biggest changes is that a lot of us are really worn out. We’re working extra hours and coming in on our days off. A lot of us are worn out mentally and physically,” she said.

But, the added workers won’t be for crowd-control. Illman said that since social distancing has been more enforced, the store has been extremely slow—a stark contrast compared to two weekends ago. Despite the lower traffic, employees are still keeping busy.

“Lots and lots of cleaning, we are sanitizing everything,” she said.

The lack of customers in store is a good thing—it means that people are taking social distancing seriously. It could be thanks in part to the ordered closure of non-essential businesses by the Ontario government on March 23.

While many Canadians will continue to stay indoors and avoid public spaces, Illman and Stafford won’t be among them, along with all of the other workers staffed at other 15,000+ grocery stores in Canada.

Many of those workers are like Illman and Stafford, young adults who were looking for extra money, now thrown into the frontlines during a pandemic. 

As of March 27, there are 6,075 cases of COVID-19 in Canada, and the number continues to grow. The World Health Organization has listed basic protective measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Maintain social distance
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • Practice respiratory hygiene
  • Seek medical care early if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing

Illman said that the future is unpredictable, but she’s hopeful that things will go back to normal. She said she doesn’t foresee the need for plexiglass shields forever, and she looks forward to when people can get back to their normal grocery routines. She also hopes for normalcy as she is supposed to start at Georgian College in the fall.

Stafford said that once COVID-19 is a thing of the past, she hopes the recognition of service workers continues. She said it’s easy for service employees to be overlooked, and that they do work that’s often undervalued because they make minimum wage. But during a time like this, the value of their work is clear.

The next time you leave the comfort of your home for a grocery run, take time to thank the workers. For many of them, their part-time job became a critical role in letting the rest of Canadians continue life as normal as possible.

And Illman only asks one thing: “Please don’t ask us when we’re getting toilet paper.”

This article was originally published on April 7, 2020 in Telling the Story using Integrated Media.

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