Grocery workers on the front lines face exposure, fear

Posted 4/10/20

While a large number of North Carolinians are working from home and adhering to a stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper, other employees around the state — particularly those whom residents …

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Grocery workers on the front lines face exposure, fear

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While a large number of North Carolinians are working from home and adhering to a stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper, other employees around the state — particularly those whom residents depend on for food — remain on the frontlines, risking exposure by going to work.

One area grocer employee shared her experiences on the job in the midst of COVID-19, speaking to the News + Record on the condition of anonymity. “Amber” — not her real name — asked that her identity not be revealed to protect her source of income.

Amber says she’s worked in the same Chatham-area grocery store for about two years. Her starting pay was about $8 an hour, but she says her store has given workers a $1 an hour raise during the COVID-19 crisis, but she gets no benefits or healthcare. While grateful for the extra income, Amber said it’s a small bump “for as much money as we bring in.”

But Amber’s biggest concerns right now are not with her employer or her salary. It’s for her fellow employees, who remain at risk of the coronavirus while on the job, and customers, some of whom are growing impatient with short supplies on in-demand goods. Amber and her co-workers spend hours each work day dealing with the public and staying busy restocking toilet paper, eggs, canned goods and other essential items in high demand now due to COVID-19 fears.

“It’s not our fault we don’t have things on the shelf that you want,” Amber said. “Don’t take your anger out on us. We’re just as frustrated. And if we do limit the amount of what can be bought, people get mad. We’re just trying to do everything we can to make sure everybody gets what they need.”

Amber said employees unload trucks and distribute goods onto the shelves as quickly as they can. New store rules now prohibit employees from telling customers when those trucks come in to prevent “runs” on the store. Still, by the time the workers themselves are able to get the chance to purchase the things they need themselves, most of it is already gone.

“Employees need toilet paper too,” she said.

Amber shared a story of one customer who filled a grocery cart with meat and other goods, ignoring limit signs posted on some items like milk, toilet paper and fresh meats. The employees explained to the customer that she couldn’t buy it all “because other people need meat too.” The woman responded by calling her co-worker a profanity.

“We’ve been called every name in the book,” she said.

Amber also worries about the health of her customers as they cram into often-packed stores.

Grocery store workers, exposed to hundreds of customers during a shift, are particularly vulnerable to exposure to the virus. Amber is young — under 21 ­ — the age group that seems most resilient to the virus, often carrying it without any symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“My fear is getting other people sick,” she said. “Someone going through chemo or something like that. I try to take as many precautions as I can, but I can only do so much.”

Amber also worries about those who survive on the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, and WIC, a special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children. SNAP recipients receive a debit card to assist in paying for any food product in a grocery store. Those with WIC can only use their vouchers to purchase items in the store that are labeled WIC. For example, if a gallon of 2 percent milk is a WIC product, but the half-gallons are not, the cashiers are not able to allow them to buy a half gallon with the voucher if all the gallons are gone.

“They are on WIC for a reason,” Amber said. “If you make enough to not be on it, don’t take it.”

Ultimately, Amber is asking for everyone to be patient and be aware of the needs of others because that’s what she’s trying to do.

“I’m not so worried about me,” Amber said, “but about what other people want, what other people need. Taking your frustrations out on the people at the grocery store will not help your situation. We’re trying to give you the best we can. Nobody likes to go to work. We’re doing the best we can for everybody.”

Casey Mann can be reached at


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