Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at email@example.com.
Before the coronavirus had even hit West Virginia, the Kroger where Courtney Meadows has worked for nearly ten years saw a big jump in business. “I was on register one day, and it was literally a sea of people,” she said. “Every one of our registers were open, self-checkouts were backed up, and it was literally just one person after another after another. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“When you’ve worked as long as I have in the grocery store, you know a lot of your customers,” Meadows said. “Some of them were just buying their normal things, but then you see them stock up on canned goods, that was a big one. And really just trying to find hand sanitizer and stuff of that nature. The biggest thing, of course, is the toilet paper.”
The store has slowed down a lot since then, she said, but now she sees people who come out just to get out of the house. “It’s one of those things that’s . . . please stay home. Please do not come out if you do not need to come out.”
Meadows has an extra reason to be cautious: she’s scheduled for surgery in two weeks. “Today, before I left work, I have a sanitizing spray that I sprayed my clothes down with. Sprayed my clothes, my shoes, we wear rubber gloves at work, some people who have had access to a face mask are wearing them, we have markers up all over the place telling you [to stay] six feet apart,” she explained.
Our registers are marked off. Our deli, bakery is marked off, telling people to please wait behind the line while they pick their meat. We have hand sanitizer on every single register. We get relieved every thirty minutes to go wash our hands. We have someone who literally stays out in the lobby where the shopping carts are, and every shopping cart gets sanitized. . . . We have people going through the whole store, sanitizing anything anybody could touch. The handles on the freezers, the milk, coolers, anything and everything that can be touched, it’s getting sanitized.
She’s taking every precaution she can. “I make sure I don’t touch my face, or any time I get to punch out for a break or lunch, we have sanitizing wipes at our time clocks, and we wipe them down. . . . I wash my hands constantly—just being extra cautious. I worry more about my coworkers. I’m not scared. I’m more worried about people who are elderly and who have underlying conditions.”
That, too, is close to home—her mother and stepfather both have health issues that make them more susceptible to the virus. That means her mother won’t be able to be with her when she gets her surgery.
But for now she remains on the job five days a week, saying, “If they give me more I work more. I just want to make sure that my customers are taken care of.” Some of those customers seem scared, she said, and she tries to reassure them. “People who truly know me will tell you I’m a very positive person. I will find the positive in every situation. It makes no difference how bad it is,” she said. “If someone comes through and they’re talking about it, I say an encouraging word to them. I will tell them: everything’s going to be OK. Some people will see so much gloom and doom that if I can be the only positive thing that they see, that’s what I choose to do. And my customers look at me and they say, ‘Please stay safe.’ And they are so appreciative of us. So appreciative.”
It’s a rough time, but Meadows wanted to underline that the pandemic has brought out the good, rather than the bad, in the people she encounters at work—who are perhaps finding a new appreciation for the grocery store staff. “There’s kindness shown pretty much everywhere. And that has turned up, like, ten notches. People are just looking at you and saying, ‘How are you doing? Are you doing OK? We thank you so much for being out here on the front lines. Thank you.’ That makes a world of difference. When people are seeing you in a different light now.”
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.