“Customers seem to forget that we’re human beings”: A grocery store cashier on working during the current wave
Natasha Grey-Quailey has been a grocery store employee for more than 20 years. She loves what she does but these past two have been especially burdensome dealing with unruly customers and being short-staffed. Here’s her story.
—As told to Karoun Chahinian
“After graduating from high school in 1998, I was looking to earn some extra cash for college. I popped into my local grocery store in Scarborough and submitted an application. I was so excited when they called me down the following day for an interview and then offered me a job. While attending Centennial, I found myself really enjoying my work as a cashier, so I decided to stick with the company. I graduated with a degree in social work in 2001, and I’ve been with the store now for 23 years. I work as both a cashier and cash office clerk.
“One day in 2008, a union steward told me that I was strong and would be a good fit for the union, United Food and Commercial Workers. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. It’s great to have a voice in things like scheduling and pay, and to help myself and my co-workers get our fair share.
“During the last waves, we had CERB, so employees who had Covid or felt scared to work got money from the government. Now, if you catch Covid, the company pays you for three days, in accordance with Ford’s Covid-19 sick pay program. But we are meant to isolate for five days after symptoms are detected if you’re vaccinated and 10 days if you are unvaccinated or immunocompromised. There’s a one-time pay reimbursement program from the company but it has many restrictions. Some workers don’t report their symptoms and come into work sick to not lose out on pay. This just leads to more workers getting sick and, before you know it, a staffing crisis.
“Last week we had several clerks call in sick—one in the produce section out of the usual three, five in grocery and three in the front end. We had one extra clerk come in to cover the front end. If we hadn’t ended up finding anyone, we would’ve been really understaffed, and would have had to deal with long lineups.
“We’re taking it day by day, but it’s precarious. We’ve only had a handful of people away, and this wave has been more manageable because we’ve hired a few more cashiers and grocery clerks. But our main issue is the lack of paid sick days. It’s not right and I hope the government comes to their senses and begins to offer compensation.
“With the onset of the Omicron variant, our experience in the store is the same as when all this chaos first started. There’s not as much hoarding as in March of 2020, but customers come into the store with a lot of frustration. There used to be a lot of love and kindness, which I don’t see anymore. Customers used to be appreciative of us being on the front lines and serving them with everything going on.
“Once, I was cashing out a customer and the next customer moved beside her and started to put his groceries on the belt. I asked him to remain six feet apart and to pull his mask up, and I reassured him that I would cash him out in just a minute. All of a sudden, he told me to shut up and that everyone was going to get Covid anyways. The woman I was cashing out stuck up for me and he told her to shut up as well. I called my store owner and exercised my right to a safe working environment and refused to serve him because of his hostile behaviour. My store owner moved him to another lane.
“Customers seem to forget that we’re human beings. In the past few years, it’s rare for a customer to say thank you. It’s been very sporadic. We see their pain, we know what they’re going through because we’re going through the same thing. We want to serve the community, but it’s hard when we don’t get anything in return.
“Everyone I encounter seems to be fuelled by anger and high anxiety. So many customers are fed up with the pandemic protocols. I probably have to tell 15 to 20 customers to pull on their masks and keep their distance each day. They’ll usually respond by saying they can’t breathe or that their MPP says they don’t need to wear it. I explain that it’s a store policy, I’m not the one deciding these rules. That’s when they start cursing. There’s one security guard in the store, but it’s hard to manage so many people at once, so a lot of the time, we’ll be the ones facing yelling customers. Then, we’ll have someone from the leadership team come to our defence and ask them to leave the store.
“We’re not enforcing these protocols for our own gain, it’s for the health and safety of everybody in the store, including the staff. I don’t want to get sick. I haven’t caught Covid yet, and I’m doing everything in my power not to. I keep my distance and walk around the store with Lysol spray, wipes and hand sanitizer and consistently wipe down my station, which includes my keyboard, pin pad, phone and conveyor belt. I also change my mask twice during my shift, wash my hands and change my gloves very frequently.
“We don’t know what other changes to anticipate. One thing I hope the head office brings back is a single line for cashing out. We used to group all our customers into one line and then buzz them into different lanes individually. It really limited the amount of hovering that took place around the cash and helped us establish an organized flow in the store, especially during busier hours. A few months ago, our head office alerted all the branches to go back to our original layout with multiple cash lines, for no specific reason, and now we’re frenzied again. I’m doing everything I can to protect myself and others. It’d be nice for others to do the same.”