“We’re a quiet army of disinfecters, spraying anything a customer might have touched”: What its like to be a grocery store worker right now

“We’re a quiet army of disinfecters, spraying anything a customer might have touched”: What its like to be a grocery store worker right now

I started working as a cashier at a large chain grocery store just over a year ago. And like everything else, my job has changed. During the day, I’m on cash, cleaning my till every time there’s a break in the line. I spend large chunks of my shift going around with a spray bottle and disinfectant, spraying and wiping down every surface a customer might have touched. It’s a never-ending cycle. Someone is deployed every shift to clean the carts and baskets after every use. After 8 p.m., when we close, everyone takes sections of the store and we clean for two hours in plastic gloves provided by the company. We’re a quiet army of disinfecters, doing what we can to protect people from the virus while still getting them the food they need.

Things at the store have gotten more serious in stages. The first week of March was the first general panic rush, and we ran out of the same items everyone else did: canned goods, toilet paper, pasta, instant noodles. The stuff you can make easily, the stuff that keeps. Before Covid-19, I’d usually see people spending $60 or $100 on my till, and that week people were leaving with overflowing carts and $400 receipts. It was doomsday prepping—the lines were snaking all around the store. They seemed more nervous than scared, quietly rushing to get what they needed before anyone else did. On those nights, it seemed like customers were preparing to go into hibernation, and the air prickled with uncertainty. For a week after that, we were cleaned out. Then we changed our hours from 24 to 12. After we cut our hours, we could catch up. There was more time for stocking, more time to clean.

My hours are holding steady at about 20 to 30 hours a week. I wander around with my spray bottle, just taking it all in. The company’s policy is that each employee has to wash their hands and change their gloves every 30 minutes, and then sign a whiteboard to prove that we’ve done it. So that punctuates our days. A couple of weeks ago, they installed plexiglass dividers at every till to protect the cashiers from droplets. I’d say about 80 per cent of our customers are wearing masks now, and we spend time motioning or politely asking people to give us a wide berth when we’re walking around the store cleaning. Initially, our managers told us we couldn’t wear masks. That was a bone of contention. They said they didn’t want us to present an alarming image to customers or make people feel uncomfortable. Last week, they walked that back and said we can wear one. I don’t want to contribute to the shortage of medical-grade masks, so I’m going to get a cloth one.

The store feels eerie now. We have a security guard at the door limiting the number of people who can come in, the same way you would at a nightclub, but obviously with a very different vibe. People wait almost an hour to come inside, and they’re never laughing or talking. Everyone is distant, physically and emotionally. Occasionally, things get tense. I’ve seen a customer call another one out for taking too much of an item that we’d put a two-item limit on. Other times, customers have accused others of standing too close to them. I still see the odd group treating the pandemic like it’s a holiday. A group of three or four teenagers who clearly don’t live together will come in, or people will make three trips in one day to buy snacks. Some customers are picking up all kinds of items, then putting them back when they get to the tills. We’re so much more aware of how much everything gets touched now.

For the most part, people are grateful that we’re still open and working. A lot of people thank us for our service when they’re cashing out. I hope that when things get closer to normal, they continue to support front-line workers, and support initiatives like a universal basic income or raising minimum wage. Our company did give us a $2 hourly raise during the pandemic, but Toronto is an expensive city to live in and that only goes so far. I’m proud that people consider us to be essential workers in the midst of this.

We’re two months into this, and there’s a feeling of surreality that I can’t shake. I wonder, What if I get sick? I wash my hands before I go to work, and when I get home I wash them and use hand sanitizer. I throw my uniform in the dryer, because I’ve read that it can help kill the virus. It wouldn’t be worth it, getting sick from a minimum-wage job like this. I’ve gone back and forth on the risk factor, and my family is definitely worried for me. My way of dealing with it is to avoid the internal dialogue. Those questions pop up, and I try to dodge them, and I get on with the job. We’re all just getting on with it.