Grocery store essential workers are not second class citizens | Think Piece

5 mins read

Even though essential workers have been critical during the Covid-19 quarantine, some essential workers are treated as second-class citizens.

The world as we know it is shutting down. Soon, we will not be able to leave our homes except to complete the most essential of tasks.  Our governments are confining our movements for the time being, and rightfully so.  This is done to protect our own health, as well as that of others around us.  

Unfortunately, we can still become sick even when performing our essential duties.  While science has provided a number of physical protections that can also act as a salve to our worried psyches, leaving the safe cocoon of home is an act laced with uncertainty.  Though we cannot see it with our eyes, the world outside is full of dangers and unsanitized surfaces.  A virus lingers even in the air we breathe. 

So we bundle up before venturing out, donning masks and gloves, carefully noting a constant 6-foot radius around the body, hand-sanitizing at every opportunity.  In this ritual of hygiene, we do everything correctly to maintain the health and safety of our loved ones.

What about those who are not our loved ones?  I am not a loved one.  Who am I? I am an essential worker. 

As an essential worker, I can be counted on, even in a pandemic of global proportions.  I serve on the front lines.  I arrive at work before the sun shows its face, and I do not sit down until my shift is over. 

My back hurts.  Every chance I can, I sanitize all surrounding surfaces with alcohol and bleach.  We’re talking about places that, before COVID-19, hadn’t been swabbed in a decade.  An hour after my shift, I am still there to wipe down every surface in the building.  At the end of work, I have washed my hands so many times I think they have shrunk.

I am essential because human beings could not survive without what I provide:  food.  Not doctors, not police, not senators, not grandmothers, not anybody.  Every day, frontline workers like healthcare providers, first responders and epidemiologists show their heroism as the world cheers for them and hopes for a miracle.  I am located on a different frontline – the grocery line.  I am a supermarket worker. 

Insignificant as I may seem, I try to bring a degree of certainty and stability in these trying times.  My disinfectant-spray bottle makes an appearance enough that it’s practically a third arm.  My hand-gun scans store loyalty cards; plastic bags painstakingly picked apart without licking my finger. 

Sometimes, all my trying seems to be for nothing.  Why do I still ask each shopper cheerily, ‘Did you find everything today?’  It must be a remnant of my memorized cashier script from when we actually had most items in stock.  Nine out of ten times, my customers scowl and mutter something I can’t hear in response.  It’s probably better that I didn’t hear…

In fact, shopper-indignation comes in all flavors.  It is strictly in response to something I have said.  On my end, it goes something like this: 

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but someone just bought the last bag of flour.” 

“Yes, sir, we had a shipment of TP on Sunday, but it ran out in a couple of hours.”  “No, I’m sorry, I don’t know when the next truck is coming.” 

“I apologize that that flavor is no longer in stock, would you like to try one that is?”

“I’m sorry, but I cannot sell you eight steaks, you’ll have to put some back.”  “I’m sorry, but I’m still going to have to see your ID for that purchase even though you don’t want me to touch it.” 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Sometimes I encounter someone sympathetic, someone who gives me a soft smile and thanks me for “putting myself at risk”.  I often don’t know what to say.  Perhaps “no need to thank me, citizen, I am simply doing my job”?  Various quippy responses pass through my mind every so often.  In fact, I am thankful for this job.  So many have already lost theirs, or will soon.  I have a few things to be thankful for:  a new 50-cent hourly raise (is that considered hazard pay?) and appreciation treats in the breakroom. 

Do not worry—I won’t take it too personally.  The instinct to back away from me as I pack your groceries is understandable.  Even the compulsion to back away and pack your own groceries I could get behind.  The impulse to just push me aside, run behind the register and scan them yourself, so I don’t touch anything, is perhaps a touch too far.  I understand—minimal contact is the goal.  But I cannot wrap my mind around the desire to treat me and my peers as second-class citizens.  I and my loved ones need protecting, too.  For their sake and yours, I sanitize obsessively.  I am doing everything I can.  We all are. 

Despite my best efforts, I am branded as a conduit of the virus.  The needs of my customers are the reason I still have a job.  Conversely, my presence is the reason those needs can still be met.  I do not appreciate the constant implication that the virus can only be spread one way:  cashier to shopper.  While you hold out your ID for me to look at the way a cartoon character holds a dirty diaper, I have to touch all the groceries from your cart and the filthy money from your wallet.  

I do not appreciate the exasperation and impatience that accompanies nearly every order.  I do not get to retreat to a sterile home, stocked sustenance in tow, after twenty minutes in the store. 

I do not have the luxury of remaining outside the suggested 6-foot social distance of other people.  I cannot wear a haz-mat suit.  I cannot work remotely.  I am not being held hostage, but I sometimes feel tortured.  I cannot vent my frustrations in a rant, certainly not while in uniform.  Much as I wish it were not the case, the masses cannot help going to the grocery store. 

I sympathize that you, as a member of those potentially-infected masses, do not want to be out here, exposing yourself, in order to get bread and milk.  In our small town, the grocery stores are not large enough to offer services like phone-orders or in-store pickup.  Everyone must come in.

You are mindful to wait at the end of the belt until it is your turn.  You count your restricted items, like toilet paper and milk, to make sure they remain under new product limits.

You want your groceries, yet resent that you have to expose yourself to me to get them.  Your exposure will be limited to the number of items on your list.  My exposure is my whole shift, day in and day out.  You worry about all the other shoppers I have touched, even as I wear gloves and sanitize in plain view.  I understand.  But you must know that you have touched a lot of people, too, and I never saw you wash your hands.  As far as I know, I’m not sick. I have no symptoms, no temperature, and I take all hygienic precautions possible.  Yet, I am the object of fear.

Clearly, our society’s safety is of utmost importance.  I am happy to help.  Please keep in mind those of us on the other front line:  we deliver your mail, take your trash away, and fill up your heating oil, too.  Our job is to serve, and we do it well.  All I ask for is kindness and humanity in return.

From Vermont to the world, Sophia Moore Smith is an investigator, gardener, reader, and lover of language. 

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