Grocery store employees are among the workers on the front lines as Colorado battles a coronavirus outbreak — playing a sort of Russian roulette with their health for modest pay while dealing with masses of sometimes-frantic customers.
“You are scared of everything — it’s normal, even if you wash your hands 100 times a day, even if you use sanitizer,” said Giuseppina Petty, who works in the cheese department at a King Soopers in Boulder. “The fear is inside you, but you don’t want to show it.”
Petty had worked 14 days straight as of Friday. She said she’s grateful for her manager, who checks up on employees and tries to make accommodations, and a company that has hired more people to meet the demand.
Lori Tattershall of Thornton said one of the most challenging aspects of her Walmart job the last couple of weeks has been seeing people in need of items and not being able to help them. But she also worries about someone with COVID-19 coming in and infecting others.
“It’s crazy, scary and satisfying to be able to help others, but it’s also serious enough to make me want to take a step back and wonder myself why I am out there doing this,” Tattershall said. “I am a homebody and this is the job I got to help my family with bills and to be comfortable, but now we have this virus.”
Many — though not all — shoppers have been appreciative of the workers.
Ashley Bishop, a Denver resident, recalled seeing a woman in a store berating an employee, nearly bringing him to tears over her frustration at not finding what she needed. Bishop said she made sure to thank the employee for his hard work.
“(People) should remember they’re dealing with humans, and this is a hard time for them,” she said.
Mike Gillette, director of customer service at Safeway, said 1% of people may get frustrated with employees, but the majority are understanding. Compliments have been flooding in lately, he said.
He recalled the story of a bagger who was talking to a customer desperate for toilet paper. The employee went home, picked up a package he had just purchased and brought it back to the customer.
“I could tell you 20 stories like that,” Gillette said.
King Soopers spokesperson Jessica Trowbridge shared similar stories of employees shopping for seniors to ensure they get the paper products they need and others making surgical masks for health care workers. She called them “our heroes who wear aprons instead of capes.”
While the larger grocery stores have seen the most traffic, local grocery stores have not been immune, either.
Emilio Velazquez-Casias, a manager at a Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver, said the store has seen about a 50% increase in customers in the past couple of weeks, and employees have worked a significant amount of overtime. To deal with the influx, managers have hired temporary employees — many of whom lost jobs with the restaurant shutdowns.
“While I’m worried, while I’m scared … it gives me a chance to be the rock and to show everybody that this is really crazy, but we’re all in it together,” Velazquez-Casias said.
Some of the heroes in aprons want more than praise — they want protections.
Unionized workers at chain grocery stores are demanding protective gear and plastic partitions at the registers in all stores. Colorado Safeway stores have added them, and King Soopers has announced plans to do so. They also want more ways to limit the numbers of shoppers at a time and the distances between them. Some of the stores have placed tape on the floors to promote social distancing, but employees want to see the efforts expand.
“We just want to feel safer in the workplace,” said Sandra Chavez, a Safeway employee in Denver. “A lot of us enjoy our work.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 union asked Gov. Jared Polis to intervene, and he asked the stores to make some of the changes proposed.
Chavez, who puts prices on items and has recently worked to help with stocking, said she has never seen anything like this in her 37 years of working at a grocery store — having to limit customers’ toilet paper purchases, for instance. For her, though, it’s the distancing that’s the biggest problem — she wants her store to provide more support, but she also wants customers to be more compassionate.
“They’re right behind you. They’re coughing,” Chavez said. “They make me really nervous.”
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