“Absolutely crazy”: Grocery workers describe how coronavirus has changed their jobs

A Ralphs employee in Temecula gathers grocery carts and sanitizes them in a cart corral for shoppers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

Back in February, most grocery store employees probably did not imagine that they would join the ranks of police, firefighters and healthcare employees as “essential” workers in a historic national crisis.

But things certainly have changed in a very short span of time.

The pandemic crisis has quickly revealed the importance of grocery workers, as well as many other workers, that probably have never been widely viewed as critical to a functional society.

And it’s certainly been a difficult last several weeks for them.

As anyone who has visited a grocery store since the middle of March knows, it started with the toilet paper.

“We had every check stand open, we had all the self-checkouts open and the lines were just crazy,” said Diane Hizon, an employee at the Temecula Ralphs.

She said the store was busier than she’d ever seen it.

“It was worse than Thanksgiving, it was worse than Christmas,” Hizon said.

That’s how another employee at the store, Ireland Roundy, described it as well.

“When it started a few weeks ago, it was just absolutely crazy,” Roundy said. “We had lines to the back of the store.”

Roundy said some customers waited as long as 45 minutes to check out.

After the toilet paper, it wasn’t long before people started clearing out non-perishables.

“Everyone started buying pasta and beans,” Hizon said.

Things, fortunately, have died down in the last few weeks as everyone settles into their new socially distant lives, although Hizon said alcohol sales have gone up and yeast is nowhere to be found inside the store.

“They’re all baking and drinking,” she joked.

Hizon and Roundy’s store is taking precautions — there are now plexiglass screens at all of the check stands to provide a barrier between cashiers and customers. The store is providing masks. Workers now have to wash their hands and clean their work stations regularly.

“They have a recorded announcement in the store saying that, you know, it’s the top of the hour, Ralphs associates, you need to wash your hands and clean your station,” Hizon said. “So I’m constantly cleaning, constantly wiping everything down.”

Most supplies are once again well-stocked, but some are still disappearing quickly.

“Toilet paper is still kind of an issue,” Roundy said. “We have it in the morning, and then it runs out in an hour or two.”

She said the store is limiting the quantity customers are allowed to purchase for certain items, including things like eggs and hand sanitizer.

Getting sick, though, is definitely a concern for both Hizon and Roundy, as even while taking what precautions they can, there’s no way to avoid potentially coming into contact with someone who has the coronavirus and may not know it yet.

Hizon said one worry for her is that some are not being as careful to socially distance themselves inside the store. She said the store has at times tried to limit the number of shoppers inside the building at times, but that there is little that can be done to prevent customers from getting too close together.

“Unfortunately, nobody’s taking any of the social distancing seriously in the store, and there’s been certain times when I feel like there’s too many people in the store,” Hizon said.

Hizon said she’s grateful to still have her job at a time when many other fields are laying workers off, but she does worry that she could be exposing herself to the virus.

“It’s very stressful,” Hizon said. “It’s very stressful. I mean, it’s a lot of anxiety. I’m grateful that I have my job but I feel like I’m putting myself out there.”

Roundy said because of the fact that she could be exposed to the virus through her job, she is doing her best to self-isolate at home — her sister has asthma, and so would be at-risk if she were to get sick with the coronavirus.

“That would be an issue if she does get it, or if I get it and I give it to her, but I’ve been staying in my room as much as possible,” Roundy said.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.