Working Retail and Dealing With the Plague

So, while this blog is ostensibly about my writing, today I’m going to talk about my real world job at the grocery store. I’ll provide a little background for you here. I’ve been working for my chain since 1997, at various stores and positions. I’ve been responsible for many of the different aspects of store operation at the retail level and they’ve kept me around so I feel like I must be doing something correctly.

Now, under normal circumstances I would say that retail is a kind of boring, mind-numbing job for a lot of folks. It’s not rocket science, but the folks that are best at it are the kind who thrive on interaction. That’s because at the heart of it, retail is based on customer service. You can probably just take out the word customer and go with ‘service’. The whole deal is based around doing things for people.

Ringing their groceries.

Fetching an item they can’t find or reach.

Pretending to smile and care when you’re an introvert who really just wants be at home, peacefully alone.

Taking care of things that might not typically be your responsibility, but you’re the person who’s there when it needs doing, like cleaning the restroom after a code brown.

If you don’t derive some satisfaction from doing things for other people, from being of service, then retail might not be your bag.

What does this have to do with the current pandemic crisis, you might ask?

Well, the COVID-19 crisis is making it more difficult to do all of that. Literally every aspect of a retail worker’s job is being impacted by this damn thing. I don’t just mean the weird, idiosyncratic things like trying to maintain social distancing while you’re leading a customer to a thing they’re looking for.

I don’t want to oversell – or understate – the reality of the situation for us, because there is a genuine fear of infection or transmission of this virus that we have to square with ourselves every day, but it’s difficult for me to relate. On the one hand, going to work doesn’t feel dangerous. The labor of it is largely unchanged, excepting the first crazy-ass week where all you nuts were buying up every case of water and package of toilet paper we could get to the shelf. But there is an undeniable risk involved now. It’s a grocery store, serving over a thousand people every day. When you run that many people through the same space the chances of picking up an airborne droplet have to increase, not to mention all of the contact surfaces (which we are now having to clean and sanitize at regular and often intervals). Like a lot of people, I don’t just have myself to worry about. I’m married with children. My wife is working from home now, but you can’t run a grocery store remotely. If anyone is going to get this thing and bring it home, the odds indicate that it’ll be me.

As someone who runs a register periodically, the new plexiglass shields don’t really do much for my confidence. There has to be a way past, through or under them in order to exchange money. Speaking of, money has always been filthy. Now it’s potentially a contact surface that could be carrying the virus (I’m not an expert, I don’t know the odds of this happening. But, it seems prudent all the same to advise using your debit/credit card or better yet, your phone via Apple Pay or the Android equivalent and limit even touching the pin pads as much as you can). We keep hand sanitizer at the registers of course, but that’s not as effective as a thorough hand washing. How many customers go through a single line between a cashier’s breaks? Three, four dozen? And while you can feel reasonably confident that any one specific person probably doesn’t have a wildly contagious virus, how do those odds work out over the course of an eight hour shift where you might wash your hands six or seven times? If you’re paranoid about going to the store right now (and good on you if you are), think about the number of folks that a cashier has to interact with daily.

So, the store is taking measures to ensure that we’re still serving folks as safely as possible. Cleaning doors and handles and carts and baskets and registers and pin pads. But there’s not really any way to protect against one dipshit who doesn’t cover his mouth when he coughs, or sneezes into the open air instead of his elbow. Everyone I work with understands this fact explicitly. We work in retail, where the rules that determine our reality can change from one day to the next because of one person’s screw up, though the stakes aren’t usually this pronounced.

Here in Arizona things aren’t as bad as a lot of other places. Today we’re up to about 3700 confirmed cases and 122 fatalities. You might be tempted to think those are lowish numbers compared to the likes of New York or Florida, and they are. But I suspect it’s leading to the general public not taking it as seriously as they ought to, which is frustrating as hell when you’re an “essential worker.”

Despite it seeming like traffic has decreased a little during my commute, and it’s hard to be sure, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of folks going to the damn grocery store. Our daily regulars are still showing up daily, seldom wearing a mask. Still plenty of folks bringing their kids shopping when one parent could have stayed at home with them. Still people dropping in to pick up one or two things.

It’s highly unlikely that any of my actual real life customers will ever see or read this blog, but for those people that do here are two simple changes you can make to mitigate the risk of picking this thing up when you do have to go out in public.

Plan your shopping. Grab enough to feed you and your family for several days, a week if you can. Utilize your freezer. Reducing the number of times you have to go out in public is the best thing you can do. Don’t be the guy who drops in to pick up a 12 pack of beer and nothing else every other day.

Don’t bring your kids. Look. I love kids. They’re damned disgusting though. They lick things, they grab things. The grab and lick things then put those things back without washing their hands. Children are a disease vector unto themselves during normal times, and these times are not normal. If you can leave them at home with a semi-responsible person please do that.

I’m not here to tell you that the folks at the store are heroes without capes. The medical workers are heroes. Nearly everyone they deal with is ill or unwell in some fashion. They’re far more at risk than anyone else in my estimation. But, the grocery store is a place virtually everyone goes to eventually and it only takes one sick person to potentially get a lot of other people sick and/or killed. Take a little responsibility and stay home as much as you can. This thing isn’t going away any time soon.