Deemed essential workers and dealing with the Great Run on Toilet Paper early on in the coronavirus pandemic, grocery store clerks have become unexpected front line workers in the social war on the viral contagion. But here in Carroll County, some say they’re just doing their job.
“About a month ago they started handing out papers for us in case we get pulled over, or a law officer or somebody needs to know why we are out on the road,” said Brian Haines, who has been stocking shelves on the night shift at the Westminster Walmart for about two years. "I called my mom and said, ‘I never thought that working overnight at Walmart would make me an essential employee.’”
Diana Freundel, who has been cashiering at the Westminster Weis for five months, feels much the same way.
“Me, personally, I just think it’s another day going into work,” she said. “There is nothing really out of the ordinary, we all know the rules and follow them and feel like it’s a normal.”
At Weis, the rules have involved observing the standard social distancing rules and keeping six feet apart, according to Jessica Tanzey, another cashier who worked at the Westminster store in high school and recently returned after her serving job disappeared due to Gov. Larry Hogan’s order closing restaurants.
“Weis has taken some good precautions starting with last week when we got Plexiglass shields installed,” she said. “As a person walks up a the conveyor belt, there is a layer of plexi and it prevents respiratory droplets from spreading.”
It’s a fast-moving situation. Tanzey, speaking Tuesday, said management hadn’t yet asked employees to wear masks, but that had changed as of Wednesday or Thursday, according to Freundel.
“They are mandating everyone that comes in the store has to have a mask on and employees do as well,” Freundel said.
Hogan’s executive order requiring people to wear face coverings in stores and on transit went into effect Saturday, but Haines said many people at Walmart, customers and employees, began masking up weeks ago.
“They’ve been handing out masks. They have the sneeze guards up at the pharmacy in the last week or so,” he said. “A lot of our cashiers have been wearing masks and gloves since the beginning.”
The Westminster Walmart has also begun metering the number of customers coming into the store at a time, asking people to line up outside spaces marked by pink pieces of tape on the ground, six feet apart, and to follow unidirectional foot traffic flows through the stores aisles, marked similarly on the floor with tape.
“You hear all the horror stories about what goes on in these stores, but I can honestly say our managers have been on top as you can be in terms of the sheer volume that comes in the store,” Haines said. “Everything gets wiped down. We close at 8:30, but the cashiers still work their regular shifts. So if they are scheduled until 10 p.m., midnight, they are staying and cleaning the font end for multiple hours.”
And if store management has been good, so have customers, according to Tanzey.
“They bring their gloves, they bring their masks. I have seen some retail horror stories but I have been blessed not to have any of those happen to me in the last couple of weeks,” she said. “I do receive more thank yous for coming to work than I ever have in my entire working career.”
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There are always horror stories working in retail, according to Haines, "but 95% or more of our customers have been very respectful,” he said. “I have heard personally and through other people a lot of appreciation from the customers. And even fellow co-workers to each other, those that are working more hours. I think everyone kind of understands this is a serious thing.”
And what about the sudden spotlight on their profession? To be going from what has often been considered unskilled labor to being “essential” to even “heroes”?
It’s not something that’s really been on Freundel’s radar.
“Honestly I didn’t know. I was hearing stuff about it but I really don’t pay attention to the news,” she said. “I feel like I am just doing my job.”
Haines also isn’t sure about being called a hero, but he said he does take pride in his work, and it’s nice to know that it’s being appreciated by others.
“You don’t want to sound cliche and certainly hero is not the word I am going to throw around, but it is playing a role,” he said. “If that’s the little bit of normalcy I can give myself and give someone else before they have to spend the next 22 hours in their house with their family going nuts? That means something to me to be able to offer that.”