Cashiers have ‘always been essential’: What it’s like to work at a grocery store during COVID-19

Catherine Chen, a 26-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., says she’s worked 50 to 60 hours a week during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

She splits her time between two jobs: one at a grocery store and another as a server turned take-out manager at a local restaurant.

“I was working maybe 70 to 80 hours a week. But now it’s been slow,” she said.

Chen’s main place of employment is Loblaws, where she’s a cashier and also helps manage some of the employees.

She’s been impressed with the company’s response to COVID-19, including its efforts to provide personal protective equipment to staff, setting up plexiglass shields at all the checkouts and implementing physical distancing measures to keep people apart in the store.

She’s also happy with the $2-an-hour wage increase Loblaws gave front-line workers during the pandemic, which increased her hourly pay to $18.25.

“It’s actually kind of surreal,” she said.

“I feel like a lot of people think it’s super scary to work in a grocery store at this time, because of feeling paranoid or whatever, but I think everyone has taken their own measures to protect themselves.”

As of Friday, there were 30,659 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada and 1,251 associated deaths.

Since the first positive case was confirmed on Jan. 15, public health officials have imposed increasingly restrictive measures to try and slow the spread of the virus.

Governments have also declared certain workers “essential” to ensure Canadians continue to have access to the goods and services they need. This includes grocery store clerks, truckers, supply chain workers and health-care professionals.

‘Being a cashier was always essential’

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Chen said it’s strange to think of herself as being on the “front line” of efforts to slow the spread of a global pandemic. But, she said, being a cashier has “always been essential” in her mind.

“I never pictured myself in this type of situation,” she said. “But I’m glad that now people are seeing these roles as essential. And I think even after all this, they should still see us as essential workers.”

While she’s satisfied with the measures Loblaws has put in place to keep people safe, Chen said working at a grocery store during a pandemic hasn’t been without concern.

There have also been some issues at the store, she said, including customers not understanding why certain items — like flour and cleaning supplies — aren’t always on the shelves and others who come into the store when they’re not supposed to, like between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. when shopping is limited to seniors and people with disabilities.

“We do have seniors who give glares to people who aren’t seniors. It’s like, what do we do in that situation?” she said.

Chen said the store has also introduced a “social distancing ambassador” whose sole job is to make sure people are practising physical distancing while shopping.

“I can’t believe that, at a time like this, that’s an actual job,” she said. “But I guess it’s required because some people still don’t really feel like this is a severe thing.

“It just feels so weird that I’m working (when) there’s a literal pandemic going on, and a lot of people don’t really care to put a mask on or wear gloves.”

Small grocery stores see ‘high’ demand

It’s not only major chains like Loblaws, Costco and Walmart that have seen long lines and increased demand for groceries during the pandemic.

Small stores like The Village Grocer in Markham, Ont., have also seen a spike in the number of customers, said grocery store clerk Trevor Randorf.

“It’s definitely chaotic,” he said. “The demand has been kind of through the roof. Like, it’s been really hard to catch up.”

Randorf, 19, has worked at The Village Grocer for five years. After his first year at Wilfrid Laurier University was suspended and then put online due to COVID-19, he went back to work.

Before the pandemic a typical day included bagging beans, potatoes and making orange juice, “pretty much anything to do with produce,” he said.

Now he spends much of his time wiping down shopping carts, handing out gloves to customers and making sure people stay apart.

He said it’s been weird working during a pandemic, but he’s grateful for the measures his employer has put in place to prevent the spread of the virus and to keep everyone safe.

“I would not be working if I wasn’t comfortable,” he said.

For the most part, Randorf said, customers have been polite, understanding and very thankful for the work he and his colleagues are doing.

There was one incident earlier this month, however, when someone contacted public health officials because they thought physical distancing guidelines weren’t being adhered to in the store.

Randorf said he was upset when he heard about this because he believes everyone at the store is doing all they can to keep people healthy, including sanitizing everything, setting up plastic shields and wearing protective equipment.

Like Chen, he said his biggest concern is bringing the virus home and infecting his parents.

Still, it’s important that people continue to provide the essential services society needs and eventually it will all be over, he said.

“Someone has to do it, right?”

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