Unlike many business sectors idled by the pandemic, grocery store employees are working more than ever.
Jeff Mays has never seen anything like this before.
“This is unprecedented,” he declared.
After 30 years in the business, Mays should know. He runs the Schnucks in Normal. Mays said it's hard to live up to the motto of your friendly neighborhood grocery store in times like this.
“A lot of neighbors we see on a constant basis, you want to know how they are doing. ‘Hey, it’s good to see you. What’s for dinner tonight?'" Mays said. “Those conversations have been difficult to have (because of) social distancing.”
What Mays said worries him more than that is how to make sure those customers and his 75 employees stay safe. Store traffic is up as restaurants have closed.
Mays said the 24 hours before the shelter-in-place order took effect produced huge crowds.
“When that first hit, it was dramatic,” he said. “The lines were unimaginable, and it was scary. It was scary for everybody, scary for your front-line teammates. It was scary for people shopping.”
The continuing and greater need for groceries and other essentials has led to periodic supply shortages. One day it's paper towels. Another day the shelves are bare of milk. Perhaps ground beef is absent a third day.
Mays said it's still hard to keep sanitizer and toilet paper in stock at his store, and you may not get the exact variety or brand you want.
Mays said workers all wear masks and get daily health screenings. Schnucks encourages customers to wear masks, too.
An increase in delivery and curbside pickup orders have helped reduce crowds in many grocery stores.
McKenna Werner runs online shopping for the Bloomington Hy-Vee, called Aisles Online. The store is running about 250 orders a day—about twice the number of a pre-pandemic peak day. Warner said the hectic period has brought staff closer together, though not literally.
“I think this crazy time has really built a relationship with all of our coworkers,” she said. “We’ve all had each other’s back and I think if anything this has been great for our work environment.”
The human resources manager at Hy-Vee is Carrie Elliott. It may sound like a desk job. Elliot said it's not.
“I am actually spending about 90% of my time in the online grocery shopping,” Elliott said. “I am shopping orders and helping them get ready to get out the door. Otherwise you’ll find me up front checking or bagging or stocking shelves, whatever we need is what I will be doing.”
Elliott has hired more workers, adding to the staff of 400-plus. She has boosted hours for college students. The work can seem stressful, but Elliott said good managers keep it light so help everyone stays upbeat.
“We’re having fun. It’s just hustle, hustle, hustle, and then at the end of the day you are like, ‘Wow we just made it through another day, let’s do it again tomorrow,’” Elliott said. “It’s still fun. We are having a good time and it’s giving a lot of the part-timers opportunities to really make some money right now.”
Elliott said she has to be more in tune with how coworkers feel and does not force people to work.
“We are taking everybody’s sickness, if you will, seriously,” she said. “A lot of times, (you’d think) you are sneezing a whole bunch are you are still going to come to work. Not now.”
The two stores have avoided COVID-19 among staff. Managers said they take many precautions. The stores have set aside morning time for vulnerable populations to shop. But they also recognize their own employees are as vulnerable as anyone.
Kroger and a major retail and food workers union have called for national and state officials to designate grocery staff as first responders.
Mays at Schnucks shied away from putting grocery store workers in the same category as nurses and paramedics, but he hopes people value the service and sacrifice he and his staff bring to their jobs.
“We are doing more than checking out groceries and bagging groceries in the check lane and bringing in carts and stocking shelves, we are providing an essential service for people,” Mays said. “I think it’s important to not forget that. This is a big deal.”
Mays said he thinks grocery workers should be able to get tested for the coronavirus even without symptoms. Currently, at most testing sites, only first-responders and people with health risks can get tested without symptoms.
He added he also appreciates the gratitude many customers and other businesses have shown his staff. Some restaurants have brought in donated food and other treats to say "Thank you."
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