When we think of front line workers in the current coronavirus pandemic, first responders, medical personnel and health officials come to mind, but there’s another group too perhaps easy to forget: the folks keeping the shelves stocked and the registers ringing at local supermarkets.
They are about as “essential” as it gets (that is if you consider eating essential) and perhaps as important as anyone in the COVID-19 trenches. They go to work in stores where they come in close contact with hundreds or thousands of people a day, whereas many of us have been going days without seeing another person. They do it for eight hours each day or more inside stores, while many of us dash in and dash out as quickly as we can and only when we must.
“You do what you’ve got to do, and you do your best,” said a Wal-Mart supermarket employee, who preferred not to be identified by name. “That’s all you can do; you come in, and do your job the best you can.”
The man said he works part time and wears a mask and groves. In any given day, he’s retrieving carts that have been touched by hundreds of people. He said he worries about catching the virus, but he trudges on because supermarkets are “needed right now.”
“It’s something that’s essential,” he said.
Kenneth and Sherry Valdez were loading groceries into their car recently outside the Winn-Dixie on Commercial Way. It’s their neighborhood store and their daughter happens to work there.
“They’ve been working hard,” said Kenneth of store employees. “We’re glad they’re hanging in there and doing it.”
Asked if he worried that his daughter could come in contact with someone infected with coronavirus, he said it’s a concern, but not so much as it is with other people.
“Not really that much,” he said. “I’m one of those who think the reaction to all this is a little overblown; but that’s just me.”
Sherry said she and her husband feel for the supermarket workers, as they don’t make a lot of money.
“It would be nice if they got hazardous pay,” Kenneth said. “I feel for them because there are some people on unemployment and collecting the extra $600 a week while people working (at supermarkets and taking risks) are making less.”
Nathan Schaffer, a Publix employee in Spring Hill, said recently that those risks are something he’s reminded of almost daily. As the pandemic was peaking in April and he was preparing for a day of fishing and boating with his family, he said the day trip he and his girlfriend (who works with him) were taking was a sorely needed break from the pandemic tension.
“We’re afraid and a little stressed,” said Schaffer, noting that he’s seen people in the store when he works who appeared sick. “This (boating) is a good way to get away from the worries and keep safe distances from people.” But like other supermarket workers, he shows up for work, practices safety and tries to maintain during the crisis.
Michelle Mahaney, a worker are Aldi, was busy disinfecting and wiping down shopping carts over the weekend. Is she worried about contracting coronavirus?
“Not really,” she said, a twinkle in her eyes revealing she was smiling beneath her black fabric mask.
But you know you could come in contact with the virus in your line of work?
“Of course,” she said.
Her short and simple answer — that it could happen but she tries not to worry — may sum up what it’s all about right now for supermarket workers in Spring Hill and everywhere: hang tough, be careful but not fearful.