Reporting from the front (checkout) lines: I felt disposable
In Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” there are famously nine concentric rings of hell that the poet is led through by Virgil. Dante sees the horrors of limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery of the damned in each ring throughout his journey. Dante forgot to include the tenth ring, however: the grocery store during a global pandemic.
In all seriousness, the state of the world is currently bleak, and laughter has become a much-needed medicine to keep from crying. I’d be lying if I said this was not one of the most trying moments in my lived experience. My purpose in writing is to offer my own perspective on the current coronavirus situation as someone dubbed an “essential worker.”
At the escalation of the crisis, my life drastically changed, switching from a full-time-18-credit-bearing-honors-student-columnist-part-time-cashier to a nearly-full-time-cashier-stocker-janitor. My weekend shift work transformed into something resembling an “always on” first responder at the drop of a hat.
In the days immediately following the university’s closure, I was inundated with work, facing the hordes of potentially disease-carrying individuals panic-buying at the supermarket. Within a day, I rang up dozens of $300 or more grocery orders, practically toppling from carts carrying excessively large loads: sugar, flour, Ramen noodles, dish soap, canned goods and the new American currency: toilet paper.
Lines stretched down the aisles, customers grew increasingly frustrated and verbally abusive due to the diminishing stocks and long wait-times and before my very eyes: the store was quite literally “picked clean.”
The situation remained the same for the next week: open, bombardment, close, repeat.
We were assaulted, and the staff could not keep up with demand. Changing my normal duties, I began stocking at night with other cashiers, staying until 12:40 a.m. on one instance, scrambling to replenish our shelves even with a newly implemented purchase limit on certain items.
As part of efforts to deal with the staggering crowds, we wiped every cart, handle, basket and shelf at the bidding of management to keep customers safe. In the meantime, we were given cheap deli gloves, no face masks and most importantly, no extra compensation at all despite mind-boggling increases in company profits. I felt disposable.
As anyone knows who has done hourly work dealing with the public, people are nasty under normal circumstances. Unsurprisingly, but even more painful to make matters worse, was the reaction of customers because of the pandemic.
Constant streams of “When are you getting ___ in?,” “Why are you out of ___?,” “Do you have the virus yet?” and “I have never seen anything like this before” filled my eardrums and echoed in my head into my sleep, only increasing my ever-present anxiety.
Around the second week, one customer saw an older coworker of mine, who has worked drastic overtime since the onslaught of coronavirus, finally getting off and heading home with a package of toilet paper under her arm even though there was none on the public shelves. Clutching her Coach handbag and snarling, the customer saw to it to lay into customer service about the “offensive,” “preferential” hoarding of our company employees. I am not making this up.
She was but one of dozens of customers who felt personally attacked that their weekly shopping lists were interrupted in a moment of global pandemic, taking it out on the employees functioning only on caffeine and just-thick-enough skins. From this experience it has become increasingly apparent to me how much entitlement and privilege flows through the veins of this country. A country whose citizens can drive in their cars to a set location at any time of the day to purchase any variety of food and water without so much as a second thought. I was incredulous at the responses of many customers who expressed anger, resentment and frustration at not being able to get auxiliary, not even essential, products in light of the situation and took it personally.
As of last week, things have begun to slow down, but the health risks only continue to increase. My company realized that its employees were apparently at risk and instituted a temporary hazard pay of a measly $1 more an hour. They also installed cough shields in front of registers that offer no peace of mind, as they have no slot to push money through and barely stretch the length of my shoulders.
On Saturday, I spoke with my front end manager and asked her if she was ok because I noticed her eyes were drawn and her posture slouched. She related to me that she was up at 3:00 a.m. drinking coffee because of anxiety about getting her or her parents sick to the point that she could not sleep and was having stomach pains. She had not had a day off in nearly a week and a half. We gave each other a knowing glance, and I never felt so compelled to hug another human being, only to remember that even we were risks to each other.
I write all this not to whine or complain but to remind anyone who travels to any business still open that those running it are real people struggling to deal with the situation. For many of my coworkers, taking unpaid time off is not an option, and there is no choice but to put themselves at risk.
One benefit of this pandemic is maybe it will spark long-overdue reform in terms of workers rights including more protections, paid time off and frameworks to support in future situations like this one. In the meantime, remember to love and respect anyone in your life or who you encounter that is an essential worker as their job is harder now than any of us know. During this time, love, empathy and appreciation, even at a distance, are genuine and needed gifts.