How may I help you — from 6 feet away? What it’s like working at a grocery store during a pandemic

By | April 7, 2020

Working in a grocery store during good times is simple. You have your daily tasks, like filling shelves, cleaning, keeping your eye on expiry dates and so on.

Working in a grocery store during a pandemic, believe it or not, is largely the same, but without the air of safety. We are still doing largely the same tasks, but the environment feels tense and bleak, which makes all the difference. 

When your job is mainly customer service, then all of a sudden you must keep your distance from customers for the sake of your health, it’s jarring.

Shared symptoms

About six months ago, I went to the doctor because I was having trouble breathing. 

I had felt the sensation before, but not nearly as consistently. The doctor checked up on me and sent me for a chest x-ray and blood tests. I was told that I was healthy as can be, and the shortness of breath that I’m experiencing is more than likely due to anxiety. 

Did you know that shortness of breath is a symptom of COVID-19? Ain’t that a kick in the teeth?

Customers mostly following rules

Thankfully, the customers have mostly been compliant with the physical distancing rule, willing to be extra respectful of employees’ time and happy to chat about how we workers are holding up. But now even just watching customers is a whole new experience. 

I have seen people with face masks before, but now I feel like I’m in a surreal movie. The advice I’ve received from doctors is that I don’t need a mask or gloves and — as long as I wash my hands, don’t touch my face and stay away from people — I should be fine, but I am envious of the customers who are wearing masks. 

Even the crazier lengths some people go to make sense to me, being a guy with anxiety issues. There’s the guy with the mask and goggles, with plastic wrap around his hair and arms, and a kid that matches. Or the fellow with the gas mask. Or the lady who wore two face masks (I think that was an accident but made me chuckle). I understand all of these people. 

There are still some people who didn’t get the pandemic memo — the ones who bring the entire family and browse the shelves, close talkers, etc. They aren’t as bad as the people who decide that it’s an opportunity to be “funny”: the people who cough excessively and laugh to their buddies or whoever left a bloody face mask in the middle of the aisle (a move that is so obviously a prank, but you better believe we sanitized that area to like there’s no tomorrow,  just in case).

Some parts of the job are the same, Melnyk says. Others are much different. (Bryan Eneas/CBC News)

Anxiety triggers abound

My workplace has done a good job of making sure that we are as safe as we can be, but it doesn’t take away my anxiety. 

Every day I keep my head down and do my job, incredibly aware of everything around me. I’ll hear a cough from across the store and instinctively think, “Hey, could you just… um… maybe… not do that?” knowing full well that it’s something you can’t control. 

We have a walk-in medical clinic in our store. There’s now a sign before you enter saying you should call ahead “if you have a cough, fever, sore throat, or a runny nose.” I work in the freezer/cooler section of my store, so I feel like I always have a runny nose. This adds to my anxiety-induced shortness of breath.

There have been a few nights where I couldn’t sleep because l was hot, sweaty and had a sore throat that felt like it had a lump in it. I’d call in sick for those days, then my symptoms would subside and I’d just feel bad for not going to work.

A weird feeling

I know that this virus is unlikely to be a death sentence for me. Odds are I’ll be fine if I get it. But it would still be bad for me and even worse for some of the people I work with, not to mention some of the people who live in my apartment building. I don’t want that for any of us. 

I don’t want to go to work even on my best days. I’d rather stay home and write, or watch tv, or play video games. 

Now, while we are in a state of emergency and urged to stay home, I get up, shower, have breakfast, go to work, do my tasks, washing my hands so many times I have a rash that goes past my wrists, work in the back when it gets busy on the floor, go home, put my clothes in a garbage bag, shower again and decompress. Then I repeat everything the next day. 

I do like customer service. I am legitimately happy to help you. It just feels weird now that I have to do it at a distance.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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