WORTHINGTON ― Grocery stores employees are being hailed nationwide as heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. Not only are they ensuring access to food, but they're putting themselves in harm’s way by risking exposure to the virus.
Meanwhile, local grocery store employees are definitely feeling the pressure of a supply chain in limbo, but don’t see their day-to-day efforts as acts of heroism.
Worthington Fareway manager Fredi Magaña reported that the general morale of his staff is thankfulness for having employment while so many business are temporarily closed.
“It feels great to be an essential employee,” he said, adding that his job and those of all Fareway employees are fairly different than they were a month ago.
In the interest of public safety, Fareway is taking extra steps to disinfect high-traffic areas of the store. Carts are cleaned every half hour. Cashiers sanitize their hands between customers. Signs are posted at the entrance asking that families send in just one person, to limit the number of people in the store.
Magaña said it's somewhat frustrating to try and keep product on the shelves ― particularly items that the public has decided they need to hoard.
When initial reports about the novel coronavirus began to circulate last month, Magaña said he anticipated that folks would stock up on supplies like toilet paper, so he ordered extra from Fareway’s supplier.
“It never crossed my mind that we would run out,” he said. Still, Fareway experienced the same fallout as other grocers of widespread hysteria about the coronavirus.
By the time Magaña established a limit on toilet paper sales, it was too late ― the public completely cleaned out the store’s inventory. A limit of one package per customer remains in place, but Magaña said even now, toilet paper only lasts about an hour on the sales floor before it’s out of stock again.
Staff is working as hard as they can to make products available, but suppliers only have so much to distribute at a time, Magaña said. His biggest concern is that nobody knows how long this pandemic will last. The added stress on employees is also taxing, and they want to know how long they will have to endure it.
To compensate employees for their trouble, Magaña said Fareway gave significant bonuses to every hourly employee ― an extra 20 hours’ pay for part-timers and 40 hours’ pay for full time employees.
Although Fareway has temporarily reduced its hours of operation, employees are spending more time cleaning, stocking and sanitizing, in the hopes that combined civic efforts will help flatten the curve of COVID-19’s spread.
Other grocers, including Hy-Vee and Walmart, have taken similar steps to make their stores as safe as possible. Walmart has begun limiting the number of customers inside at a time to five people per 1,000 square feet of store area, or about 20% of maximum capacity. Hy-Vee has taped directional arrows at aisle entrances to create one-way traffic through the store.
It’s not just national or regional grocery giants like Fareway, Hy-Vee and Walmart that are feeling the pressure of the grocery market ― local Worthington grocers said they are dealing with similar stressors.
Jeng Sayveo of Sayveo’s Asian Food Market said when she first heard about Americans hoarding grocery products, it was hard for her to believe.
“I didn’t think it was real at first,” she said ― and then it started happening at Sayveo’s. The market’s regular customers began purchasing rice in unprecedented quantities, until Sayveo’s ran completely out.
Sayveo said one customer even told her that he had stocked up 50, 50-pound bags of rice at his house, so he felt prepared for whatever food shortage may come.
Although Sayveo’s exclusively offers food supplies, Sayveo said customers have been asking for soap and hand sanitizer. The hoarding seems to have leveled off, she added, but business has slowed down as people spend more time inside.
Julio Lopez, an employee at El Mexicano #3, named similar concerns. Initial hoarding decimated inventory of beans, rice, maseca and meat, he said. The store now sees less traffic on average than it did before the novel coronavirus.
El Mexicano #3 has taken a few extra safety measures to protect its staff and customers. Employees all wear masks and gloves. At the cash register, blue-tape Xs mark six-foot increments, so customers can maintain proper social distancing while they wait in line.
An employee of Top Asian Food, who wished to remain anonymous, said he's afraid that his job might expose him to the virus.
“A (virus) is a thing I can’t see,” he said, adding that while he can take precautions to limit his chances of contracting COVID-19, just serving customers could put him at risk.
He also explained that Top Asian, too, is experiencing shortages of items like rice and spices. Normally, the store gets restocked two months at a time, but now the inventory coming in is reduced, because distributors are low on supplies due to unnecessary hoarding by the public.
A Sein Asia Grocery Store employee who also preferred anonymity shared that she's “a little scared” of working in the grocery industry right now.
“I don’t know what (customers) have been touching before they come in the store,” she said. She’s been offering disposable vinyl gloves for customers to wear while they shop, but people won’t wear them, she added.
At Mini Market Lupita, owner Maria Parga said she's not requiring any employee to work if they are worried about potential exposure to the virus, but she’s also taking precautionary steps to protect her staff and customers.
“Sales went through the floor, but we’re trying to be safe,” she said.
When customers came in with the intent to hoard supplies, Parga simply told them she wouldn’t allow it, because other people also need access to those items. When customers come to the market, she limits the number of people in the store at once, asking people to wait in their cars until others are finished shopping.
Karen Family Asian Market is also feeling the effects of coronavirus stress, said owner Moo Htoo.
“People care, and I do too,” she said, noting that she's a little worried about the potential risk of interacting with the public, but she wants to keep offering staples that Karen families rely on.
Community members can lower the risk for grocery store employees by obeying the governor’s stay-at-home order and by only purchasing groceries and other supplies that are actually needed.