I’ve worked in grocery stores since I was 20 years old. The best part of my job has always been the people. You never know who you might talk to during the day: It could be someone who’s homeless, or someone with a million dollars in their bank account. Everyone has to buy food. Working here, you see the actual face of society.

That’s the worst part of my job now.

These days, you can’t help but see strangers in terms of risk. The store allows 100 customers inside at a time, which doesn’t seem like a lot. But when I do the math, it makes me nervous: Over a shift, I can deal with as many as 1,000 people — and all it takes is one cough. I keep imagining the air picking it up and carrying a droplet right into my eye. Being a cashier is even more dangerous, because they’re dealing with many more people, face to face, touching the things they have touched. The stress takes a toll. A lot of people quit because they or their loved ones are fearful. When I get home, I spray myself down with Lysol so I don’t spread the virus to my family.

As a front-end manager, I manage employees and direct the public in the store, so I’m used to dealing with disgruntled customers. I’m black and 28 years old (which is relatively young for this position), so people often assume that I don’t know what I’m doing. To them, I don’t look the part: I should be bagging their groceries, not reviewing their receipts when they dispute a transaction.

In pandemic times, that disregard shows up in sad and scary ways — often in how customers ignore new store policies. For example, we now clean the cash register, pin pad and conveyor belt with industrial disinfectant after each customer. We do this for their safety, and ours. But some people just don’t care. They throw their items down on the belt before the checkout clerk finishes. Sometimes it’s because they’re impatient, but other times it seems more purposeful — like they’re trying to rebel, showing us how little they think of us and our rules. It’s not necessarily a racial issue; some people don’t want to be bossed around by someone who they think has a lower social status. Who gave us the right to tell them what to do?

Some people have lashed out at the requirement that customers wear masks indoors. One shopper refused to listen, even after multiple associates told her she had to put one on — and she got mad about it. She got up in people’s faces, shouting at them. That’s not a fun experience, even in normal times, but now, it’s dangerous — you can just imagine the little droplets flying everywhere. It took four of us employees to get her to calm down, and she wouldn’t leave until we threatened to call the police. My co-workers and I read stories about customers attacking employees at Target and McDonald’s, or see footage of people bringing guns to state capitols, and it scares us. You never know how or when someone will lash out.

On some level, I understand where they’re coming from. When the coronavirus first came to the United States, the government said masks mostly weren’t necessary. Then, all of that changed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended masks in early April, so I started wearing one. At first, one of my supervisors tried to get me to take it off, saying I looked like a criminal or a terrorist. Later on, our store gave out masks to employees. A lack of knowledge makes people afraid, and fear drives people crazy.

Little things that ordinarily wouldn’t bother people really bother them now. When one shopper gets too close to another one, they freak out. It’s hard to keep everyone calm, to tell them there’s no need to yell. Our county has one of the highest case counts in the state, so customers and employees alike have been hypersensitive. They act more aggressively when they feel threatened or when someone is in their space.

Every day, I talk down shoppers upset about not getting toilet paper or meat or something else they’ve been looking for. It’s not just us responsible for stocking the shelves, I say. It’s the workers who make the product, the people who bring it to the warehouse, the people who make deliveries to our stores — a whole supply chain that’s getting disrupted by illness, because people are getting sick. That’s the most common challenge of my day: getting customers to have some perspective. People are dying out there. They can deal with a little inconvenience.

But you also see the good in people. We have one regular customer who comes in with a big sign that says “Thank you!” She walks all the way to self-checkout, at the far end of the store, and claps for and thanks each person at each register. A lot of shoppers are really grateful for our work, and they try to leave us tips, though our store policy doesn’t allow us to accept them. (If the customer is persistent, I’ll give it to another employee or use it to buy them a little refreshment or a snack.)

I wish more people knew that grocery store employees take care of the community. I wish we had Plexiglas at our work stations, and more protective equipment. I wish we had professional security — that it wasn’t up to the clerks to account for the public’s behavior. I wish people had a more united approach to this crisis, and tried harder to understand the reasons behind public safety rules. These rules aren’t about bossing shoppers around. They’re about all of us looking out for each other’s health.

Our work feeds thousands, and none of us get paid much to do it. Most of us don’t have much choice: It’s either go to work or go hungry. We’re on the front lines, unprotected in almost every aspect. We’re vulnerable to the virus, and we’re vulnerable to other human beings.

Source: The Washington Post