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Grocery workers deal with stressed customers, but also bear witness to acts of kindness

An employee at Whole Foods near Interbay restocks shelves on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.
Parker Miles Blohm
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KNKX
An employee at Whole Foods near Interbay restocks shelves on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

 

As medical workers deal with the current health crisis, grocery store workers are finding themselves sometimes bearing the brunt of our stress and frustration.

Sue Wilmot works as a cashier at a Safeway on Bainbridge Island. She has more than 25 years of experience working in grocery stores. Employees at her Safeway are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Wilmot is her store's shop steward.

Wilmot says she and her coworkers, who do not have any training in psychotherapy or how to de-escalate a situation, are dealing with really stressed shoppers.

“Some people are angry," Wilmot said. "You know, they don't know how to deal with this and they're angry if we're out of toilet paper or something that they need.”

Sue Wilmot in a protective mask on the clock at Safeway in Bainbridge Island.
Credit Courtesy of Sue Wilmot
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Sue Wilmot in a protective mask on the clock at Safeway on Bainbridge Island.

Wilmot also is seeing a lot of generosity. She said there was a customer who was upset because she was not able to get one of the last rolls of toilet paper. A man in front of the woman in line turned to her and gave her his toilet paper.

“He said it's already paid," Wilmot recalled. "This sent the woman into tears. I mean, she was just so thankful for that.” 

Over the past few weeks, Wilmot’s union has negotiated an extra two weeks of paid sick leave for people who are affected by COVID-19. Her store installed plexiglass shields at checkout stands and workers now have hazard pay. This is in line with what other unionized grocery stores are offering employees.

Wilmot says her store, like others across the country, are doing a lot more labor-intensive cleaning and marking spots on the floor where people need to stand at checkout so they're far enough apart. They’re also hiring more staff.

Wilmot isn’t aware of any of her coworkers getting sick with COVID-19. Some grocery stores, such as PCC Community Markets and Trader Joe's, are posting on their websites whether a worker has tested positive for the virus. No identity is revealed, but the date when the infected person was in a particular store is shared.

At her Safeway on Bainbridge Island, Wilmot says she's still seeing some shoppers coming in to make small purchases almost every day. She suspects these individuals are lonely and that their only human interaction is happening at the grocery store. Wilmot said overall, most of her store’s shoppers understand they need to stay home and stock up on lots of items when they do make a trip to the store.

As people reduce their trips to grocery stores, there are usually changes they have to adjust to when they do shop, because new safety protocols are being put into place so often.

“You know, we had someone that got very angry yesterday because they couldn't use their reusable bags for safety reasons as we don't control the sanitation of those bags,” Wilmot said.

Wilmot recognizes that sometimes customers just need someone to yell at, and a checker in a grocery store is a captive audience.

“We just have to keep in mind that when somebody is angry, it's probably out of fear or frustration or, you know, it's not me," she said. "I can't take it personally.”

Even though Wilmot tries to not be affected by these encounters, she is feeling a lot of stress these days. The extra physical work of cleaning is tiring and she’s worried she will contract COVID-19.

Sue Wilmot enjoying her home garden — her go-to way to decompress after stressful shifts at Safeway amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Courtesy of Sue Wilmot
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Sue Wilmot enjoying her home garden — her go-to way to decompress after stressful shifts at Safeway amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“You know, it's a lot of pressure on grocery workers that we didn't ask for, but we are doing this because we have to," Wilmot said. "We're doing this because we care about our communities.”

Working in her garden at home is one way that Wilmot is keeping her mental health in check. Safeway, like most other grocery stores in the region, is now supplying masks and gloves to workers. Grocery stores, including Wilmot’s, are starting to limit the number of customers who can be inside a building.

Throughout the conversation with Wilmot, she repeated one point a few times: She said it's really important to keep front-line workers like her safe and healthy, because if she is able to stay safe and healthy, then the more likely it will be that people who are shopping in these stores will also stay out of harm's way.

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Jennifer Wing is a Producer for our weekly show, Sound Effect.