‘Stay safe:’ A grocery store employee on becoming an essential worker

by Lauren Whitley

“Stay safe,” I said to the customer as I stuffed the receipt into one of her bags. She nodded thankfully before rolling the shopping cart past my register and out of the store.

Three months ago, I never would’ve imagined that every “have a good day” would be replaced with “stay safe,” yet here we are. As I sanitized the pin pad and countertop before my next customer, it all flashed before my eyes like a time-lapse — everything that has changed.

It all began on Monday, March 9. Almost minutes after my shift had started, my manager frantically came up to the front end of the store and announced, “Three cases of coronavirus were just confirmed in Cuyahoga County.” I stared back at him in disbelief. I wanted to laugh because it was so common for him to crack jokes, but his stern expression told me everything I needed to know. Earlier that day in Linguistics, we had joked about everyone’s classes getting cancelled if the virus continued to spread between states. However, it was not a joke anymore. This was real, and this was happening. 

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It only took roughly 24 hours for this joke to come to life. I got an email from the University of Akron that all classes would be cancelled for the rest of the month. All restaurants and bars were ordered to close down by the end of that week, and it didn’t take long for malls and retails stores to follow the trend. By the time March was coming to an end, stay-at-home orders were in place to encourage everyone to quarantine themselves as much as possible. 

I watched as everyone around me lost their jobs and filed for unemployment. Some of the lucky ones had jobs that were stable enough to continue sending them paychecks during their time out of work, but others were laid off completely.

On the other hand, I still had a job to go to every day. Careers were falling apart all around me, and yet, I was still grabbing my apron and driving to work every day as if nothing had changed. I, an insignificant grocery store employee, was left with one of the only jobs that still had to face the public every day. It was bittersweet. As I heard the stories of people around me losing their jobs and struggling to pay rent, I couldn’t help but think how incredibly thankful I was to still have a job that could pay the bills. 

Despite this, there were nights I’d sit in my car after work in tears, filled with anxiety and fear that I was going to go home and spread the virus to everyone I came in contact with. Even though I never felt sick, I always feared the small chance that the virus was latched onto me in secret, lingering like a parasite that desperately searched for a new host to destroy.

I could see this same fear and paranoia within my coworkers as many of them started to wear gloves and masks, with a bottle of sanitizer in hand at all times as if it were a weapon. Work began to adapt to this new, apocalyptic life we were living, and it didn’t take long at all for the new policies to start rolling in. 

By the time it was mid-April, every team member was required to wear a face mask, whether they wanted to or not. Tables and chairs were removed from the store to discourage lingering. Large boards of plexiglass were bolted in front of the registers to protect cashiers more thoroughly. All of our aisles became one-way. We turned away reusable bags, we limited the use of cash and our sanitation routines reached an extreme. We even offered face masks to customers for free at the door, though a handful of customers still refused them. My store was doing everything in its power to slow the spread of this destructive virus, so why was I still left feeling this sense of never-ending doom?

As the beginning of May marked a fresh start, I tried to walk into work feeling uplifted. “It’s a new month,” I told myself, “and things can go back to normal soon if people continue to do their part.” With shaky hands, I threw open the side door to the store and tried to maintain a feeling of hope.

“Welcome back,” a team leader greeted while ushering me over to the wooden contraption I had to stand behind to get my temperature taken. “99.1,” he declared after zapping my forehead and handing me a mask, letting me proceed into the store. “That’s getting pretty close!”

I laughed hesitantly as I tried to correlate my temperature with the warm weather that day. I inhaled a deep breath of air before putting on my mask as I prepared myself for the next eight hours of suffocation. After throwing on my apron and clocking in, I lathered my raw hands with multiple pumps of soap in the break room sink. I took a leap of faith by glancing over at the TV with a constant stream of news playing on it. It only took me seconds to locate the “20,000+ confirmed cases in Ohio” plastered across the screen in bold. It was hard not to be overwhelmed by that number. A month and a half ago, we had just become aware of the three existing cases in Ohio. Realizing that those three had multiplied by thousands in a matter of weeks, just in our state alone, was terrifying, but it was even more terrifying trying to predict how much our current count would increase in the following months. 

I tried to shake off these dark thoughts as I dried off my hands and walked out onto the floor. By habit, I scanned the front end of the store as I walked up to the registers, briefly taking a look at our clipboard with the list of workers on the schedule for the day. After watching lines of customers starting to pile up on the open lanes with one of our main registers closed, I immediately noticed the absence of a cashier.

Double-checking the schedule again, I asked, “Where’s Jessica?”

“She has a fever,” my supervisor frowned. “She’ll be out for at least the rest of the week.” 

As silence passed between us, chills started to run down my spine. I had just talked to Jess two days ago when she was showing me precious pictures of her new nephew. “I probably wasn’t supposed to tell you that,” my supervisor sighed after noticing my worried expression. 

I exhaled after realizing I was holding my breath, my throat already beginning to feel dry from the mask. “No,” I said, shaking my head, “I appreciate you telling me.” Not wanting to dwell on it any longer while the lines continued to grow, I snapped out of my thoughts and slipped a pair of thick vinyl gloves on over my hands. As I walked over to my register, I couldn’t help but subconsciously realize how our list of healthy workers was depleting. Not only was there a handful of workers who refrained from working while our job remained hazardous, but the amount of people who called off sick seemed to be growing every day. 

Immediately entering customer service mode, I put on my enthusiastic voice as I asked my first customer about her day. The lady burst into a smile as she placed each of her items up on the belt, her face exposed without a mask. “I’m doing great!” she exclaimed. “We’re throwing a party tonight in celebration of everyone being able to get together again.”

In my head, the world seemed to stop moving. My mind struggled to process the words I was being told as I tried to recall the latest updates from the governor. Restrictions on social gathering had barely been loosened, let alone removed completely. Could she really be serious?

As I scanned her boxes of cupcakes and bottles of champagne, I realized that she was clearly not joking. “Oh!” I gasped as an attempt to disguise my horror. Here I was, sanitizing every surface around me between every single customer, breathing dry, hot air back into my lungs all day, the back of my ears throbbing from tightened mask strings, for what? 

The customer continued to chat about her plans as if she was now immune to the virus now that May had rolled around. It only took 10 minutes into my shift to accept the disappointment that this new month was not going to be as hopeful as I had anticipated.

I began to feel sick to my stomach as I remained silent and continued to scan the rest of her groceries, nodding along to the words she was saying that I was not hearing. I couldn’t help but feel powerless as I gave her all of the resources she needed in order to host her celebration. I disagreed with everything she said so strongly that I felt my blood begin to boil, but I couldn’t afford what would happen if I got into a debate with a customer. My heart began to slowly beat faster, and my hands began to tremble at the thought of infected people gathering in large groups again. I began to see the numbers of cases on the live news reports rapidly rising in my mind. 

This is not going to end, I thought. I am suffocating every damn day for these people, and I don’t know how or when it will ever end.

Finishing the transaction, I made sure to slip the receipt into her bag before she left. “Stay safe,” I hissed, forcing a smile through clenched teeth. While my eyes sparkled with the kindness that I had nailed over years working in customer service, the woman failed to see the quiver in my smile as I took a suffocated breath behind the mask. 

Lauren Whitley is a senior pursuing an English degree at The University of Akron.