The forgotten pandemic frontline workers

How strange of a world we are living in.

The enemy we are fighting is invisible; a microscopic terror that enjoys infecting human hosts. It bounces from person-to-person via handshakes, hugs, or laughter and begins its dirty work; causing a cough, shortness of breath, or complete respiratory failure. In response, we are in a time that is characterized by how well you can cover your face, sanitize your hands, and stay away from the people that you once enjoyed the company of. Everyone has had to make sacrifices.

I am a displaced college student, forced to learn online as the COVID-19 pandemic rampages through Allentown, Pennsylvania and its surrounding areas. Suddenly, the college community I once held so dear,- my professors, mentors, and friends, are scattered across the United States. Obtaining a college education online has been complicated– my course load remains the same, but I find myself craving the comfort of being in others’ company.

Through a beautiful occurrence of happenstance,  I have rediscovered that sense of community while working at a local grocery store.

Nestled in a shopping center off of a county highway, the Hainesport ShopRite presents itself as a typical supermarket, one that welcomes you home the moment you walk in. A trip to the supermarket is a trip for the five senses; as you walk under the store’s double-doored entrance, you are engulfed in the scent of freshly-cooked rotisserie chicken and simmering fried rice from the Chinese buffet. If you don’t want to stay a while and eat from the Market Cafe, fluorescent lights and smooth soft rock soothe and guide you as you make your way through the aisles.

This store has a heartbeat, one that beats quickly to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of the public. Managers speed-walk through their hourly rounds. ShopRite From Home associates drag their nearly-full carts around the store, preparing orders for delivery. Stockboys wheel U-frame carts from the stockroom, back and forth, back and forth in a seemingly endless rhythm. It is human nature to not give these employees a second thought. They all serve a common purpose; to help make a customer’s experience at ShopRite convenient, quick, and satisfying.

Especially during times like these, however, I believe it’s important to acknowledge the people behind those nametags and uniforms. The community at the Hainesport ShopRite is a complicated one; a melting pot of human beings from all backgrounds, races, and socioeconomic statuses. There are high schoolers with neatly-tied ponytails, their attention bouncing between their work and their cell phones as they fulfill orders or stand, somewhat slouched, over the cash register. There are the dreamers, those who have already lived out the best part of their lives or are on the cusp of doing so. They remain quiet at first, but striking up conversation leads to stories being told, aspirations being shared. Chris from the Meat Department was a music teacher before school funding got slashed. Brian in Grocery wants to be a screenwriter or director.

There is plenty of blue-collared angst at this store, too. Grumbling shelf-stockers and backroom assistants who feel like the government has forgotten about them. They’re in a constant limbo with the timeclock, punching in, punching out, waiting for the day when their taxes go down and life returns to the ‘good old days’. “This COVID bullshit again?” barks Greg, an associate in the frozen foods department. 

Regardless of differences, interactions between the employees are what make the store so special. “It’s a shared experience,” says Brett Prester, the grocery manager. He towers above everyone he talks to, but his intimidating stature is merely a facade. He is a sensitive man, one with two young children whom he worries about constantly. He thinks intently. “You form different kinds of relationships,” he says, after a pause, “different kinds of bonds.”

The workers at ShopRite, in a moment’s notice, had to exchange their uniforms for superhero capes when the novel COVID-19 virus spiraled out of control in March, prompting New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to instate a stay-at-home order beginning on March 21.   The first place that panicked New Jerseyans flocked was– you guessed it–to local grocery stores, under the assumption that they’d have to stock up for months.

The day of the shutdown, as Brett describes, was nothing short of apocalyptic. “It was Thanksgiving week all rolled up into one day. Just the amount of people coming into the store, and they’re all panic buying. You have customers that really don’t know how to react because this isn’t something they’ve experienced in their lifetime.”

Panic was understatement. The store made over $360,000 that day, but the profit came with a price.  Employees and managers watched helplessly as customers toppled over one another, throwing whatever product they could into their carts. The lines snaked all the way around the store, with particularly anxious customers attempting to cut the line.

By the end of the day, shelves were decimated. Toilet paper and disinfectant were nowhere to be found. Employees that had stayed until the store closed felt a combination of exhaustion and shock; this was a work environment they hadn’t experienced before, nor had they signed up for.

For Brett, it was more than exhaustion. It was sheer panic; God forbid he picks the virus up off a shelf and brings it home to his two little ones. He made the decision to send them to live with their mother. For over two months, he did not see them nor anyone else. “It was really difficult,” he says quietly.

The weeks and months following were some of the darkest Americans had experienced in a long time. Stuck within the confines of their own homes, most clung to their television screens which spewed the same news headlines over and over again: Death toll continues to rise. Hospitals are teetering on maximum capacity and lacking personal protective equipment. A president remains silent, focused more on his reelection chances than American lives. With the businesses that Americans once flocked to– restaurants, shopping malls, and theatres– now shuttered, a trip to the local grocery store seemed like a thrill. The weeks and months following also brought out the best, and worst, in the ShopRite clientele. 

“When the word ‘essential’ started to kick in, that’s when I knew we were truly special,” says store manager Bill Wilson, a jovial, humble man of 65. His travels have brought him all over the world. Having served in the Navy, he sailed the shores of Eastern Europe, saw Nova Scotia, and experienced the vibrant beachside communities of Puerto Rico. Now, his travels are the perimeter of the store, where he most enjoys saying hello to children that waddle up to his waist side. “You can learn a lot from a child,” he says.

Bill, along with the other managers, had to make some difficult decisions in response to the virus. When it came time to restock a shelf, caution tape roped off either side of the aisle to prevent customers from swarming in and stripping the shelf bare. Product limits were stationed everywhere you looked, on packaged meat, frozen vegetables, even cases of water. In a time where the grocery shopping experience was now dictated by a strict set of rules, kindness from the clientele went a long way. “I got a lot of ‘Thank you for taking care of us!’ ‘Thank God you’re here!’ Stuff like that.” Bill recalls. Three Italian restaurants nearby, Bill adds, delivered pizzas to the store to express their gratitude.

But for some, COVID-19 isn’t the only sickness spreading around; selfishness and entitlement are contagious, too. Suddenly, some customers felt entitled to certain products; bickering with management over limits and complaining loudly when something was out of stock.

Kharonay Brown, a remote college student who works as a grocery shopper for ShopRite’s pickup service, experienced the worst of human nature during the pandemic’s early days. She is a sophomore at Wilmington University, watching at home as Black Lives Matter protesters fight for their rights in city streets. For her, racism was something she’d only heard about from others. She never thought it would happen to her.

“This lady was getting milk, and the store was very crowded. I put my cart in between her and someone else’s and she wound up backing up into my cart. I apologized, and she still got an attitude with me. And then she started getting rude, so I walked away. And when I’m in another aisle, she comes and puts the phone in my face and starts talking. And I said ‘Get the phone out my face!’ and then she told me to shut up. And then I went and got my boss. When I went back into the room, my other co-worker, Ron, told me that when I walked away, she said ‘Where did that [n-word] go?’ She didn’t say that to me. She said that when I walked away.”

Furthermore, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending the usage of masks/other face coverings in public in July 2020, public health policy quickly turned into a political game. The president and other important government officials–people Americans turn to during times of crisis– downplayed mask-wearing’s efficacy from the beginning. Suddenly, science and propaganda were pinned against each other, and these politics came into play in the most public of places.

Most Americans complied with mask policy willingly, but some, as Bill calls them, “special people,” felt the need to make a bold statement in public by refusing to wear a mask.

In August, a particular encounter with an angry anti-masker led to the police being called and the customer being thrown out of the store. Bill attempted to calm the customer and explain to him why wearing a mask was so imperative; without one, he is potentially spreading the virus to other customers and employees. The customer refused to listen, insisting those that wear masks are “sheep.” Bill then lost his temper, a rare occurrence for the otherwise easygoing man. “I took it as an insult to my staff and myself, and to humanity in general. I don’t look at myself as being anyone special. I mean, yeah. I had cancer, I beat cancer. I’m at an even greater COVID risk.”

“It’s like giving a finger to God.”

These next few months are going to be uncertain. Although a vaccine is on the way, cases are still spiraling out of control, leading to the deaths of thousands before Christmastime. One thing remains the same, though. The word ‘essential’ is a strong one; one that overpowers fear and empowers the people under its umbrella. There is a special community of essential people working at the Hainesport ShopRite. They’re ordinary, complicated, and quirky. But the work that they do brings food, and comfort, to the public during an extremely uncomfortable time.

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