Thursday, May 30, 2024

Grocery store workers feel customer tension during pandemic

| May 4, 2020 1:11 AM

The job that I’m doing to pay for my tuition at the University of Idaho — a grocery store merchandiser — is crucial to keeping people going during the coronavirus pandemic.

My task is the same as before the pandemic: Use a cart to take my company’s soft drinks to a designed store aisle, then put it on the shelves.

What has changed is that customers who used to banter with me have become stand-offish and edgy. And sometimes they snap at me.

I know it’s nothing personal, so I let it go. When I’m standing in an aisle that is not wide enough for 6 feet of social distancing when another person passes, I make a convenient target for their frustration.

What I encounter in the store aisles these days is far different than before the coronavirus. Parents and their children move about in masks. No one speaks to me, and I can tell they prefer that I remain silent, too.

You can feel the tension. A small cough can instantly send people scurrying in the opposite direction, like a hitter’s bat changing the path of a baseball.

Since Idaho announced its first coronavirus case in late March, I have learned to keep my head down during work to avoid the fury that some customers unleash on grocery store workers like me these days. After a soda squirted on me one day, a woman snarled that I looked like a slob.

My job also involves interacting with store managers, and they have become tense as well. Managers who had never spoken sharply to me now sometimes yell, and some have told me to get my work done and get out of the store as quickly as possible. Their fear, of course, is that the virus will find its way into their operation, infecting employees and leading to a store closure.

The idea that I could become infected while working is always on my mind. All it would take is placing a 12-pack, bottle or can on a shelf where the virus is lingering.

I carry hand sanitizer to use between stores and multiple times in a store. I also heed my company’s instructions that merchandisers wash their work clothes every day.

Customers are also using hand sanitizer. I see many grab a product, put it in their cart, and immediately apply sanitizer, repeating the process until they finish shopping.

Coronavirus has affected my college and personal life, too. The University of Idaho went to online classes in late March, prompting me to return to my hometown of Post Falls to live with my parents.

I haven’t seen my girlfriend in a month because her parents are afraid I will exposure her to the virus and she will pass it on to them.

I am also letting my best friend, who just got out of the Army, stay with me for a while. His parents want to be sure he is free of the coronavirus before allowing them to live with them.

Since I can’t see friends and my girlfriend, I’ve been able to devote more time to my hobby of music. I’ve written six new songs for guitar and one for piano in the past month.

But that’s the only silver lining for me. Like everyone else, I can’t wait until there’s a vaccine, so we can get back to normal.

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Tristan Schmick, from Post Falls, is among University of Idaho students in Hal Foster’s media writing class who wrote essays about how COVID-19 has impacted their lives.