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The (Other) Unsung Heroes 

A Bend grocery store employee weighs in on her personal experiences with the COVID-19 feeding frenzy

While the vast majority of us are exercising our privilege to hunker down in the safety of our own homes while bingeing Netflix and eating excessive amounts of Top Ramen, grocery store employees continue going to work every day, essentially putting their lives at risk in order to keep up safe and stocked up.

Some stores are taking this into consideration and offering employees increased compensation and special benefits; Market of Choice, Newport Market and Albertsons upped pay, for example. While a small raise is rarely met with disdain, a couple extra bucks per hour hardly offsets the immense emotional distress grocery employees are met with each day they decide to show up.

Michelle Tager McCarthy, who works as a cashier at Market of Choice, noted that even though her employers had been both understanding and accommodating from the beginning of the outbreak, she still had to take a leave of absence after just two weeks on the frontlines.

“We’ve been doing everything we possibly can as employees,” McCarthy said. “We’re wearing gloves, wiping everything down with sanitizer… of course, there’s always that one person who thinks the whole thing is a hoax.”

click to enlarge People have been panic-buying groceries for weeks, leaving grocery store employees over-worked and concerned about unnecessary exposure. - PIXABAY
  • Pixabay
  • People have been panic-buying groceries for weeks, leaving grocery store employees over-worked and concerned about unnecessary exposure.

McCarthy explained that in 2013 she was in a coma with a collapsed lung; while she made a full recovery, her past history of respiratory trauma puts her more at risk.

“It’s difficult, because I want to be there for my coworkers,” she said. “Everyone has been so lovely, honestly. But first, you know, they took away the hot food bar, and then the poké bar. Then one day I saw them start to take down all of the events posters, all the way through April. I thought to myself, ‘I know why they’re taking them down,’ and I had an anxiety attack right there. In front of the customers. It was absolutely awful.” McCarthy noted that this was the first time in her life she’d suffered from any kind of anxiety.
Other local grocery employees who I spoke to shared similar stories, but were unwilling to go on the record, for fear of losing their jobs. Employees at Costco, for example, have been banned from talking to the media, the employees said.

McCarthy explained that at this point, roughly seven employees at her store had taken leaves of absence for different reasons—most were immunocompromised, she said, and all were feeling beyond overwhelmed.

“It’s so, so difficult,” said McCarthy, describing what her and all of her coworkers have been experiencing since the COVID-19 outbreak first began. “You have to put on your ‘customer service’ face and be super friendly to everyone, that’s just how it is. We have such a regular customer base, people are so used to coming in and chit-chatting. Small talk stopped being funny and cute, now it’s all just super depressing. People are scared. You can see it all over their faces.”
She also explained how stressful dealing with a constant influx of customers was as people scramble to stock up for the unexpected.

“I’ll see someone in line coughing into their hand, then they’ll reach into their wallet and hand me a twenty. We wear gloves, you know, but I’ll take the twenty then have to scan fruit during the next transaction; now I’m moving this guys’ fruit into a bag. Everyone is trying to be as careful as they can be, but it’s impossible not to spread from one thing to another; especially with the volume of customers we see on a daily basis. It’s frightening and disconcerting. The staff has been under so much pressure… When I head up to the break room it’s like everyone is numb; no one is laughing or joking. Everyone is scared and tired.”

click to enlarge Out of toilet paper? Don't panic. It's very likely this awesome Bend community will let you get... a roll, or four, but no more. - PIXABAY
  • Pixabay
  • Out of toilet paper? Don't panic. It's very likely this awesome Bend community will let you get... a roll, or four, but no more.
McCarthy also suggested that a lot of major grocery store chains are hiring on the spot because of high levels of exposure—not just to help with restocking, as many seem to assume. Those who aren’t able to file for unemployment because are flocking to local stores in attempts to supplement their rapidly dwindling income. It’s important to employ critical thinking before rushing in an application, however.

If getting a second job isn’t an absolute necessity, it probably isn’t worth the risk, as according to Portland-based epidemiologist Sonja Nakasian.

“It’s so important to stress that no one is invincible,” she said. “We’re still learning a lot about the virus, and for now it’s critical that everyone, including young, healthy people, follow CDC recommendations for social distancing to slow the spread of the virus, protect the health care system, and help protect vulnerable older adults. Not only are you protecting yourself, but you’re protecting your community and loved ones.”

I’ve heard several of my own friends say things like, “If I get it, I get it. I’ll be fine.” Or, “Young people aren’t susceptible, there’s really nothing to worry about.” The CDC recently reported that nearly 40 percent of hospitalized patients are between the ages of 20 and 54.

An otherwise healthy, 29-year-old college classmate of mine is still recovering after suffering at the hands of the virus for well over three weeks. These precautions aren’t intended to inspire fear, but to encourage people who have other options to take advantage of them.

“If you can stay home, please stay home,” Nakasian reiterated. “Of all the essential businesses staying open, grocery stores see the most people come in and out on a daily basis. Filing for unemployment doesn’t make you a ‘quitter’ or make you ‘lazy.’ It is essential to slowing the spread and ultimately saving lives. These are the frontlines and they need to be treated as such.”

Meanwhile, those who have worked in grocery stores from the get-go are doing what they can to stay calm amidst the chaos. “Right now we’re opening at 8am and closing at 9pm,” McCarthy explained. “We still have people on the 9-11pm shift, but those people are just facing products so the distributors have an easier time restocking. By the end of the day the bread is gone, the eggs are gone, rice beans, toilet paper. We’ve started limiting toilet paper sales to one per person, we have to make sure people don’t get too hoard-y. But it is important to remember that some people are helping, not hoarding.”

McCarthy mentioned that business in recent days has exceeded anything she’s ever seen prior. “I think I sold over $20,000 on one register in one day,” she said. “People are spending $700 to $800 on groceries; it makes Thanksgiving and Christmas look like nothing. Still, people come to the register with their carts filled to the brim. No one was prepared for this.”

When asked what the general public could do to ease the blow, McCarthy replied, “Don’t send more than one person to the store at a time, and don’t go out unless you absolutely need to! Leave your kids at home. Kids don’t know any better, they touch everything and then suck on their fingers. And try to recognize that we really are doing the best we can. I’ll have 15 people in line and no bagger, and people will toss their bags in my direction and hop on their cell phones. We really just need to work together.”
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