5 May 2020

Stoic supermarket workers providing essential services during COVID-19 pandemic

| Emma Davidson
Coles supermarket employee with mask and gloves while serving customer.

An employee at Coles in Manuka taking COVID-19 precautions during a transaction. Photo: Michelle Kroll, Region Media.

Supermarkets in Australia employ hundreds of thousands of workers, with more women than men, and many working part-time or casual at low hourly pay rates. And right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re essential workers.

Theresa* works in a large Canberra supermarket and says her job has changed during the past two months. With many more people in the store than usual, and more questions from customers who couldn’t find stock, staff often weren’t able to take breaks during their shift in the early stages of panic buying. Checkout operators are having to work faster to get customers through, pressure on rosters has increased as more staff are needed in store, and it is impossible to keep shelves stocked of certain items.

“I didn’t hear a positive word from a customer for about three weeks,” says Theresa. “A lot of the time when we walk around the store, customers just treat you like part of the furniture.”

She describes customers coughing and sneezing, and not allowing space for social distancing around store staff.

In response, many stores reduced opening hours to allow shelves to be restocked without customers around them, thus reducing transmission risk. This also improves access to restocked shelves during special opening hours for at-risk customers and health workers. Staff at greater risk have been able to take time off to avoid being in busy stores.

Rest and recovery between shifts is vital for people working on their feet in customer service all day, six days a week. Retail workers describe the job as being “a bit like acting” as they smile and offer a friendly face to everyone they meet, even when they feel as exhausted and stressed as many Canberrans during this COVID-19 crisis.

“Every now and then we have an aggressive customer come in. One threw a basket at me. They expect you to know exactly when stock is coming into the store, why certain fresh foods are so expensive,” says Theresa.

With constant changes as the health crisis continues and supply chains adjusting accordingly, management communicates frequently with staff to give them as much information as they can. But that doesn’t mean floor staff know when a particular product will be back on the shelf in their local store.

“It’s really hard to look like you know what you’re doing in your job when you get these questions that you just can’t answer … That would be like asking an APS3 [Australian Public Service Level 3 Work Level Standard worker] in the prime minister’s office to understand how every government department works. Just not possible,” says Theresa.

Her employer has always had an employee assistance service, offering mental health support to staff, but the company is promoting the service to its staff more than ever as a result of the extra workload and personal stress everyone in the community is facing.

Customers who offer a friendly word and a smile make a real difference to tired and stressed staff. Theresa says comments such as, “thank you for being here”, or “thank you for continuing to feed us”, help her get through long and demanding days at work. Opportunities to help someone, such as finding a pack of toilet paper for an elderly woman when there’s none left on the shelf, remind her that the work she does has an impact on people’s lives.

“I’m very lucky to have this job now; so many people have lost their jobs,” says Theresa. “I’m proud of working here.”

* Name changed to protect privacy.

Original Article published by Emma Davidson on The RiotACT.

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