“Apocalyptic” Crowds, Hour-Long Lines and Hazard Pay: Philly Grocery Store Employees Tell All

They’re among the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. And they’ve got some things to get off their chest.

Grocery store employees are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: Getty Images

We asked employees at four different grocery stores in Philadelphia about how COVID-19 was affecting their jobs and wellbeing; they offered their time, valuable insight and tips for how to make their experience (and yours) safer and cleaner. Their names have been omitted to protect their jobs.

Some takeaways? Thank people who assist you. Shop less often. (Like, once a week.) Don’t hoard. Maybe opt for hand sanitizer instead of gloves. And remember: Grocery stores are now vital emergency resources. Treat them as such, and be considerate when you’re shopping.

30-something male, longtime employee, high-end Center City grocery store

Describe your store’s atmosphere.
As far as people coming in, the weekend before the last was apocalyptic. There was nothing left on the shelves. This past Friday, there was a disturbing amount of customers. Sunday and Monday were a little better, but there are still people coming in and not giving six feet of space between each other. No one was social distancing.

How are you and your coworkers faring? 
Everyone is uncomfortable on one level or another. I know at least one [employee] who’s not coming in, and I’ve been told there are others.

Are you scared at work?
For me, if [the business is] sporadic and people are observing social distancing, I’m comfortable. But it really depends on how customers are acting.

How are customers acting?
A disturbing amount of people don’t seem to be taking it seriously. There are still so many people getting too close, being super touchy with things.

Grocery store employees are being hailed as heroes. Are people thanking you?
If people really wanted to thank me, they wouldn’t come into the store as often as they are. There are still people coming in literally every day. I’m sure they piled up on groceries last week, but they’re still coming in. We sell things that are not necessities, and the sales of those things — health and beauty items, flowers, prepared food — are thriving. Seeing people come in just for those makes their thank yous a lot cheaper. Once this thing blows over, will people continue to appreciate us? Probably not. I’m happy to still have a job. My partner works several jobs and has been laid off from all of them.

How is the store keeping you and customers safe?
They recently put up signs telling people to stay six feet apart. There’s an ‘early seniors time,’ when seniors can shop by themselves without others swarming around them. We take extra time to disinfect everything. There are sanitizer wipes as you come through the door. They’ve scaled back on loose foods, like the salad and nut bars.

What else could it do?
I’ve heard of stores not allowing more than a certain number of people in at a time. A measure like that would make us feel more comfortable. Stores are trying to limit their hours, and that’s caused worry because it encourages more people to be in the store at the same time.

How about pay?
We’re getting additional money tacked onto our salary — hazard pay — and are also being offered double-time overtime. On the one hand, I’m thankful for that. I’m not pursuing it, but I know some people who are. On the other hand, it does encourage people to work more maybe than they should. You’re not paid if you decide not to come in. You can use your paid time off if you have it.

How can shoppers make your job safer?
Be less touchy. Come in less often. Stand six feet apart. But anything short of a total lockdown probably isn’t really going to help [stop the spread of COVID-19].

30-something male, newish employee, works for Instacart at a major South Philadelphia grocery store

Describe your store’s atmosphere.
Very hectic and crowded at times. You get people so wild and scared and concerned. There are long lines and a lot of [items] missing. Sometimes you can wait over an hour to check out. I work for Instacart, so when someone orders through the app I do the shopping for them and they pick it up or someone else delivers it to them.

What items are most popular?
Toilet paper, eggs, bread, milk, water, frozen vegetables, bananas. The store is limiting how much of one item you can buy at a time. They’re enforcing it at the check-out line. Customers are frustrated. For my customers, if we don’t have something they want, they allow me to get them something similar or they get a refund for it.

Are you scared at work?
A little bit. But I gotta do this. I’m taking a risk to make sure my customers have something to eat. I feel like we’re hometown heroes. We’re lucky to still be open, because a lot of people have lost their jobs.

How is the store keeping you and customers safe?
They put up boards that separate customers from cashiers. We also wear gloves and practice hand washing. We’ve been doing the best we can.

In what other ways has the pandemic affected your store?
There used to be a cafe area [near our grocery store] where people would sit during breaks, but now we can’t go there because of the governor’s and mayor’s orders. Now employees have to be on their feet the whole time.

20-something woman, longtime employee, grocery store in North Philadelphia

Describe your store’s atmosphere.
Starting 10 or 11 days ago, this was terrible. It was a snow scare that wouldn’t die. There were people with carts of full of things they didn’t actually need, fighting over the last oodles of noodles on the shelf. Things are slowing down. But people might just be running out of money; last Friday was pay day, and it was crazy again.

Are you scared at work? Have you thought of not showing up?
I have a respiratory illness, and I go home to my small child who also has a respiratory illness, and I try to go to the market for my grandma [who lives near me]. When I consider how many people I’m exposed to, I’m only bringing it home. The people who work there are absolutely going to get it, because people can’t help but get close to you, and they don’t cover their mouths properly. But not going to work is not an option. I don’t work in an industry that will give me paid time off in addition to a week of vacation time. I have to take care of my family. No matter how bad it gets, I have to go.

How is the store keeping you and customers safe? What else could it do?
They put plastic plexiglass things directly in front of the cashiers. It’s meant to protect the cashier while they’re scanning, but once they move to bag your groceries, they’re no longer behind the plexiglass. It was a nice effort, but it’s not super helpful. I noticed recently that they had someone at the entrance wiping down shopping carts.

In terms of prevention, that’s all the grocery store can provide. There are cashiers who brought their own masks, but the store hasn’t provided them, and I don’t think they want all of us to have them because it would come off as offensive to customers. 

How are customers acting during these times?
They come in with their gloves and masks and are making it worse, because theoretically, they’re putting their gloves on as they get of the car, which means they’ve touched their dirty car and then the cart, the fruit, the basket, the food. If [germs are] on your skin, you’re washing your hands. But instead [germs are] sitting on the glove you’re using to touch everything, like the pen pad.

Grocery store employees are being hailed as heroes. Do you feel like a hero?
On the register, if you see a hundred customers a day, maybe two of them will say thank you. Now that the supermarket has become life-sustaining, on Facebook people are like, ‘Thank the grocery store workers!’ But they come in and think they’re better than us. People still walk up to me and grab my hand to get my attention. Why are you touching me? If they were really thankful they would leave me alone.

How can shoppers help make your job safer?
I would be satisfied with a genuine thank you, especially when the store is really crazy. And if lines are long, bag your own groceries. I’ve heard people say, ‘That’s not my job.’ It’s not. But it slows everybody down behind you. And hand sanitizer is at every register [in our store]. When you get to the register, use hand sanitizer, help bag your groceries.

How about pay?
We get overtime. They just implemented hazard pay, so everyone is making more per hour. I’m grateful because something is better than nothing. But I also feel like they could’ve paid us more when people first started working crazy hours. 

How do you and your coworkers try to support your mental health during this time?
We all understand that we’re in this together, so there’s been a lot more camaraderie recently, even between people in other departments that you wouldn’t typically talk to. We’re constantly making jokes, laughing to keep from crying.

40-something man, longtime employee, major South Philly grocery store

Describe your store’s atmosphere.
There are no restaurants now, so the need for food has quadrupled overnight. It’s bizarre, and it feels indefinite. Our warehouse is rationing. They want to make sure all the stores get something. I haven’t seen toilet paper on the shelves since this whole thing began.

Are you scared of coming to work? Have you thought of not showing up?
I’ve never been this frightened or unsure in my life. [The fear] comes in waves. I work in seafood, so our department isn’t specifically really busy. I’ll be looking at people and watching their mannerisms and behaviors, and it spooks me. I’ve lived through September 11th, Y2K, both Gulf Wars. This is different than all of those things. We have no idea how it’s going to work out.

How are customers acting?
I see people coming in wearing gloves and a face mask, but then they’ll remove the face mask and wipe their face with the gloves. Why would you even bother looking that ridiculous and then suffer the consequences of passing germs around? And recently, a couple in their 20s brought their baby in during seniors-only shopping time. I said, ‘This is supposed to be for older people,’ and they said, ‘But we’re just so bored.’ I was just thinking to myself, How can you be so out of touch? And bring your baby? 

Grocery store employees are being hailed as heroes. Do you feel like a hero?
I hope everyone feels like a hero in some way. I’m happy for 99 percent of the customers I wait on because they’re really great people. I feel a responsibility to the city to make sure everybody is in good spirits and as healthy as they can be.

What measures is the store taking to keep you and customers safe?
They’ve put plastic guards by the customer service desk and cashier stands, X’s on the floor to help people know where to stand when they’re waiting in line, arrows on the walkways. They’re as shocked as we all are. 

How about pay?
On Saturday, our store had a conference call with the mayor, and somebody from homeland security and a bunch of other managers of supermarkets. After that we were given a piece of paper that said we are essential employees, and we were informed we would be getting [paid more per] hour, and that pay would be retroactive. 

How can shoppers make your job safer?
Pick somebody in your family to do the grocery shopping once a week or twice a week. Stop coming in every day. Don’t come with your whole damn family. I’ve seen people come in three to four times just to get shrimp steamed. It’s like, maybe you don’t need that luxury right now?