Five years ago, a week before “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” arrived in theaters, I had taken a job in a local grocery store pushing carts in the evening. It was during the holiday season, a time when grocery stores and other retail businesses hired anyone with a pulse. Pushing carts wasn’t a bad gig overall. When the weather was warm and they were constructing the overpass near my work, I loved watching the sunset in the parking lot and listening to the banging of metal in the night air. The work was simple and pleasant. Since then, I have been a cashier, janitor, seafood rep (that lasted a week) and now a floater (a fancier term for stock boy). Being a floater has never been an easy job. It is not just stocking cans of corn on the shelf with a bunch of teenagers and college students. Retirees, teenagers, other college students, people looking for a second chance, parents even college graduates (a coworker who worked overnight stocking shelves had a degree in Business from Temple) work in retail. It has become a major source of employment for the educated and the uneducated, the skilled and the unskilled alike. Regardless of race or creed, what unites us is our frustration for our work and since the pandemic that frustration has only exasperated.
When the pandemic first hit a year ago, our shelves were quickly depleted the weekend Pennsylvania began to shut down. Our freezers became barren, most if not all of our meats were sold, and, of course, we ran out of toilet paper. By the end of the day Saturday of the first weekend of the pandemic, all we really had were Little Debbie products and some sparkling cider left over from Christmas 2019 (that stuff sells poorly, even in the middle of a pandemic). It is hard to believe it has been a year since COVID-19 first hit — those months of March to maybe June of 2020 feel both distant and recent to me. I tried keeping a log back in April, but many of my notes were mundane. I did not record all that happened at work and when I was not working, I was at home puttering around my house. The supply chain did not collapse, but it was under pressure that had not been seen before in the recent history of the United States.
Pictured above is a frozen food aisle in early April 2020.
It was hard telling people who were desperate for toilet paper that we did not have any. I tried directing them to the nearest small corner store or family-owned chain (in the beginning they maintained a better supply than we did). When people would ask me when we would get more stuff in, I would shrug my shoulders and tell them I did not want to lie to them. Some people would accuse us of hoarding supplies and truth be told, we were not. Some coworkers bought a pack of toilet paper together and divided the rolls amongst themselves. For me, my parents had to drive out to the rural parts of PA to find ground beef and toilet paper. We had plenty of Lysol spray and wipes left over from when I had the flu a month earlier (an odd stroke of luck when I think about it). At the beginning of the pandemic, a coworker gave me a can of Lysol and I felt bad taking it, so I took it back to the shelf and explained that we had plenty of it at home, and it felt like I was hoarding. A woman quickly came and picked it up from me and said thank you.
In normal times, delivery trucks come in the early evening, and the overnight crew comes in around 8 p.m. to break it down. However, during the summer, trucks became infrequent. I remember one time I had to come in early (5 a.m.) to help overnight unload a truck that had gotten there an hour earlier. Sometimes we would not get a truck for a day or so and then multiple loads in one day. It really depended on the luck of the draw that day. One surprising phenomenon was that at one point, just so we had stuff, we got stacks of toilet paper and flour that were originally meant for hotels. But since no one was travelling, it made more sense for us to stock shelves with it. Things are semi-stable now, though we still end up running short on supplies depending on what they are.
On social media and television, we were praised for continuing to come into work. That we were in a way heroes for making sure communities had food and supplies. The media certainly thought we were awesome, and we had some customers thank us for what we were doing. However, I do not think people realize just how bad it got on some days. The fear that your coworker sitting across from you had COVID in the breakroom, to customers who would lose control and act like a child having a tantrum in a toy store. One moment that stands out in my mind was the time me and my manager had to go over to our beer garden because an older white man was screaming at a co-worker and an African American customer. When we asked what was wrong, the old man started screaming at our manager claiming that a Black man was following him around the store (he was not, we checked the cameras). He spent 20 minutes screaming at us, telling us about how his wife left him in the store alone, that he thought we were discriminating against him because he was white and not questioning the Black man, he was accusing of following him, that he had PTSD and that if he did not yell, he would get violent. I honestly thought I was going to have to fight this guy who was twice my size at that moment and that I was going to end up on the news. The guy tired himself out and then proceeded to leave and went about our business.
We who work at stores like Acme, Giant, Walmart and Target have been through Hell this last year. We have gone home crying, scared and exhausted. I have broken down in tears personally three times this past year. Many of us did not choose to continue working during this pandemic because we were brave or had a sense of duty. We did it because we had bills to pay and mouths to feed. Our work was not a breeze to begin with and the pandemic only exacerbated our problems. Grocery stores face issues of sexual harassment, disrespect and abuse from the communities we feed. The latter is still being felt now as we struggle to get vaccines and the latest attempt for a minimum wage increase died with Senator Sinema’s obnoxious thumbs down. It is important to remember that behind that mask, the cashier that sounds like a robot reciting the “thank you for shopping with us,” the women in health and beauty care and the guys stocking the shelves are all human and we are so tired.