Diary of an "Essential Worker:" (Entry 2) How Are You?

Many, if not most,  folks I work with have cried at least once at work this week. I know I have. We are all exhausted and emotionally raw.   I cried when a regular who is a senior told me how much she appreciated everything we have done to make shopping more safe. Co-workers and I have quickly walked away red eyed after sharing appreciations of each other because we needed to go back to work and couldn’t break down.  I fucking sobbed at my desk when I saw (on break) that my neighbor’s schnauzer died.  I loved that dog and I probably would have cried anyways but it unleashed a torrent of pent up anxiety and fear and sadness.  I then cleaned off the keyboard with the isopropyl alcohol solution now on every desk.

In scary times, emotional reactions don’t come out in clear ways to appropriate targets.  It’s good for all of us to remember that.  Overwhelming reactions, inappropriate anger, the urge to police the way others are handing the pandemic knowing that you don’t have full knowledge of other people…. We’re going to see a lot more of this as the stay-at-home order goes on.  We’re going to see it in ourselves as well.

We have had very few upset customers considering how much things have changed and how fast.  Of course, not everyone had heard of our senior/at-risk hour before it started and were not super happy about having to wait an extra hour to get into the store.  Others hadn’t heard that we had to reduce hours to close at 7 PM. However, almost everyone has taken the changes in stride.  Some, even though inconvenienced, expressed support for which I am grateful. The joy of working at a community institution maybe… I have heard horrible stories, anecdotally on the internet but while we have a few angry people every day so far our community has risen to the challenges. Some of the yellers have even returned after shopping and apologized.  Looking for inappropriate reactions within yourself and handling them is one of the ways we will get through this.

It’s almost unbelievable how quickly things have changed in day-to-day reality.  Ten days ago I was crowd-sourcing info on how Italian grocery stores were handling the situation.  I saw pics of people standing in lines six feet apart, heard they were metering customers into the store, read the phrase “social distancing” for the first time.  My first thought:  This just won’t work here.  Ten days later it’s the norm.

Limiting customers in the store has decreased the work stress 50% at least.   In effect what we have done is transferred the check out line to outside the store.  People wait outside (6 ft. apart) but, much of the time, can walk straight up to a cashier when they are ready to check out. We have the other stresses – our family, our friends, our community, our health —  but at least our work environment is more peaceful and manageable than the previous two weeks.

A little bunched up in places, some of those folks are walking by,
but mostly 6 ft apart.

I mean aside from the fact that every ache, pain, cough, or sore throat causes a minor panic.  No matter what the actual symptoms of COVID-19, the excess monitoring we are doing on ourselves also breeds anxiety.  The day we introduced metering I came home sure I was getting sick because my throat was sore.   Still, something in my mind was all, “this is familiar.”  I wracked my brain and realized my throat felt like it feels when I return from a tense Giants game.  Right.  I was yelling through a mask doing crowd control at the store for a couple of hours.  I’m fine. So far.

We don’t know what the future will bring.  Will 50% of our work force be out at some point?  How can we further do harm reduction for worker safety? We have changed so much in a week, what will we be doing in two weeks from now that we never imagined? All this uncertainty is kind of my weakness, to be honest which is why I have felt especially emotional and teary. There’s a reason I have stayed in the same apartment and job for 25 years!  I’m not super into change. But I am working my way through it and doing ok.

I think one thing that is really tricky for us  – especially in a cooperative where we are used to talking to each other in person a lot – is the lack of a culture of distance.  Usually it’s our strength.  What most people want to do right now is just what we cannot do – get everyone together for a membership meeting to talk about our feels and hash stuff out.  Social distancing can become social control and authoritarianism (a.k.a. a conventional workplace) if you are not careful.  We will need to develop new procedures internally as quickly as we’ve developed them externally. On the plus side, old grudges are falling by the wayside.  I have newfound respect for people who pissed me off a decade ago.  We need each other.  Old grievances seem petty.

Also, another thing that helps – both on a perspective level and to fight xenophobia – talk to immigrants. Co-workers from other countries can provide a much-needed perspective. Sometimes you just need to hear things like, “Eh, I lived through a coup.  This isn’t so bad.”

 The last time I teared up at work yesterday was when a customer who I have never talked to came up to me already crying.  She said we were heroes. I don’t accept the “hero” label – save it for the medical folks and first responders on the front lines – but she meant it and I heard she meant it.  That was enough to keep me going for another day.

All you grocery workers reading, just remember, the work you are doing is important.  The community is important.  You are important.  Be proud of this.

Stay safe people.

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

I prefer the black gloves when available.

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