Even during a pandemic—especially during a pandemic—people need food. That’s why people who work at grocery stores, pharmacies, and other stores that sell food are considered essential workers, and thus are exempt from the stay-at-home orders in place in many states. Grocery stores, in fact, are one of the few industries right now that are doing well during this uncertain economic climate.
But that doesn’t come without a price. Grocery store workers are putting their health on the line in order to do their jobs—there have been dozens of grocery store workers at Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and Giant who gotten the coronavirus in recent weeks, per The Washington Post, and at least four deaths. People on social media are quick to compare their sacrifice to that of health-care workers and first responders. Yet unlike health-care workers, who know that their jobs come with some degree of risk, people in the grocery industry are being asked to assume a similar risk, but typically at a much lower pay and without the same access to personal protective equipment (PPE).
It’s a difficult time for anyone right now, but particularly these workers who are just trying to do their jobs—and keep themselves and their families healthy and safe. Here, Santos Trejo, a 31-year-old food service specialist at Central Market in Austin, Texas, shares what her life is like as a grocery store worker during COVID-19.
Well+Good: How long have you been working at Central Market?
Trejo: I’ve been working there for 13 years. What I love most about my job is the people. Normally, we’re big huggers and high-fivers, so not being able to have any physical contact with each other has been difficult. Working during the pandemic has taken a toll on all of us and I wish I could reach out and hug my friends at work, but I can’t.
How has your job changed since the beginning of the pandemic?
Oh gosh, it’s changed a lot. Starting the second week in March [once the virus started becoming widespread in the U.S.], it seemed like every day I would come into work and there would be a new change. First, it was getting rid of the free food samples. Then it was shutting down the salad bar and individually wrapping the baked goods at the in-store cafe instead of just having them out for people to grab. Now, our cafe and food services sections are shut down all together. I used to work in the cafe, but I was moved to other departments that were swamped and needed more help. I worked as a cashier for a while, but now I’m in the meat department, which is another really busy part of the store.
My workplace has always been great about sanitation, but now it’s stepped it up even more. Each basket and buggy is wiped down after each customer uses it and other surfaces are sanitized more often. The store also put up plastic dividers separating customers from the people working checkout to ensure social distancing. We only let in about 50 people at once now to shop to make social distancing easy for customers, too.
A few of my friends were selling cloth masks, so I actually bought some from them. That way, I can wash them every night when I get home from work. It’s not comfortable to wear a mask all day, but I know it’s important and I do everything I can to protect myself. I live with my 88-year-old grandmother and also my sister, who has a compromised immune system. Every night when I get home from work, I take a shower and change my clothes before interacting with them.
With these safety measures in place, do you feel safe going to work?
On April 4, 2020, it was mandated in Austin that everyone wear a mask when in public and for the most part, people have been really good about that… Employees [at Central Market] are also required to wear masks at all times, too. Each employee was given disposable masks and a T-shirt that says “please keep your distance.”
There are a few times when customers get a little too close and it makes me feel uncomfortable. There were a couple times when I asked customers if they would back up and they rolled their eyes, but for the most part, everyone is understanding to the situation.
Other than that, I do feel safe because of the barriers that have been put up that reinforce the six feet apart [rule] and the other measures that are in place.
Have customers’ buying habits changed since the pandemic started?
Definitely. In the beginning, in March, the average person was buying $300 worth of groceries, which is lot more than what [the average] used to be. And even beyond that, many people were buying $500, $600, or $700 worth of groceries. It was so busy all the time. The lines were really long and there was no break. I compared it to Christmas without the joy. The most popular items people were buying—besides toilet paper—were meat, produce, frozen foods, flour, canned vegetables, and lots of alcohol.
Now, the store has put a limit on how much customers can buy. For example, you can only buy two packages of flour. I can tell a lot of people are baking bread and they haven’t put a limit on how much yeast someone can buy though, so people are purchasing four or five yeast starters at a time.
People are still buying the same sorts of items now, just not in the same volume as before. And by the way, if you’re wondering when the safest time to shop is, I would suggest Tuesday afternoons. That’s when it’s the least busy [at my store]. The store is busiest in the mornings from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then again from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., so I would avoid those times.
What do you think about the petition to make grocery store workers eligible for PPE and hazard pay?
My workplace did start paying us hazard pay, but when I actually did the math, it doesn’t even equal a quarter of my paycheck; it’s about one-eighth of my paycheck. The hazard pay is $2 per hour for every hour you’re working, but I don’t think it’s enough to recognize how much more difficult and busy our jobs have become. So I’m grateful for it, but I don’t think it’s enough.
My workplace is one of the few places that have actually been able to hire more people during the pandemic though, so I’m grateful for that. Because we need the help.
Have customers done anything to make you feel appreciated for the work that you do?
Yes. There’s two customers that come in every day who gifted me some facial masks and also some cloth face masks that they had made. That was really nice. Customers are also thanking me a lot more than usual, just for being there and showing up to work. It’s a little weird to me because I’m just doing my job, but it makes me feel like I’m playing a part just like doctors, firefighters, and other people on the front lines.
I’m a grocery store worker and have worked in food service my whole life. I’m just doing my job, but it does feel nice to be appreciated.
Is there anything else you want people to know about being a grocery worker during COVID-19?
Just be patient with us. If we’re out of an item and we don’t know when it will be restocked, we really don’t know. We’re all doing the best we can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.