A supermarket cashier in Rome during the Covid-19 outbreak (Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP / Getty Images)

Dispatch from the frontline: A supermarket checkout manager on life under Covid-19

They’re not getting paid extra, they miss their families and they’re tired of people losing it over yoghurt. Leonie Hayden talks to a supermarket checkout manager about the craziest time of her career.

Rosie* is the checkout manager for one of the large supermarket chains in a medium-sized New Zealand city. She calls her team her “work family”. Making sure they’re OK is her greatest responsibility, she tells me. She is a member of her union and has worked in supermarkets for 27 years. She works Tuesday to Saturday, but lately she’s been working seven days a week.

Rosie kindly let me call her up at the end of her nine hour shift after day one of the lock down. We agreed not to identify her so she could speak frankly about her experiences in these extraordinary times.

Leonie: Hi Rosie, how was your day?

Rosie: It was very strange. It was pretty quiet after the madness we’ve had over past few weeks. But it was a very emotional day.

Why was it emotional?

We had people crying at the checkouts – the workers. Because it’s just dawned on them, I’m not gonna see my mum and dad for a month or I’m not gonna see my child for a month. We had tears. So we had a talk to everybody and said… nobody’s been through this before so it’s day one of something totally brand new and we all have to learn together how to get through it. I said if you need to go out and have a walk in the sunshine, just go and we’ll sort it out.

I just reminded people, we’ve got a job and we’ve got money coming in and there’s customers that could have lost their jobs and have no money coming in. You don’t know their circumstances so just try and be happy and just make sure we treat everybody with just a little bit more respect and talk to them a little bit kinder. And also some of the people coming in, this might be their only human contact if they’re on their own.

That’s pretty gracious. I suspect that a lot of customers haven’t given that same consideration to supermarket workers lately. Have you found that in the last couple of weeks?

Mmmm yes. We didn’t see the first rush coming. People just filling their trollies with everything. We were running out, so they started getting shitty. We just couldn’t plan for that, for selling six days worth of one item in a day, or six months worth in a week. Like the toilet paper! [laughs]

The great toilet paper depression!

For a whole week every single person was buying toilet paper. And then what would happen, when the staff finished work and they went to get their shopping, there was nothing for them to buy.

And yeah we have had some nasty customers. They get quite angry because we don’t have flour and that sort of stuff. I had a customer the other day, she buys online and it was like she had to slum it because she had to come and do her own groceries.

Oh no.

In our store we put limits on things, trying to be fair to everybody, and I had one person saying, if you don’t allow me to have this then my husband’s going to starve to death cos that’s all he eats. It’s on your head if he dies cos you won’t let me have four yoghurts! That type of thing [chuckles].

It can be upsetting for the checkout workers. We now have to come to work and say ‘are you ok?’ every day. You’re talking about all this stuff that we haven’t really talked about before. ‘Do you have someone at home looking after the kids?’ It’s been a big learning curve getting this information from people. Some people can handle it OK and others are really teary-eyed.

Do you feel at risk?

The customers come in for, say, half an hour and you’re there for eight, nine hours, however many days a week. We are taking that risk that whatever you’re bringing into the store, you could pass it on to a worker.

My son was quite hesitant about me going to work at level four. My compromise was that when I come home from work I stand at the back door and I take my uniform and my shoes off outside the house then my uniform goes in the wash straight away and I go and have a shower before I do anything else. And that gives me and him a little bit of peace of mind.

We do have customers coming in and saying ‘thank you for doing your jobs’ which has been very heart warming. We’re not packing into people’s reusable bags anymore, customers are having to pack their bags themselves and they’ve realised it’s not as easy as it looks.

I’m terrible at it! I crush everything!

[laughs] We try and have a bit of a joke about it just to try and keep our spirits up.

When you found out about alert level four, what was asked of you by your employers?

My company started planning for this a while ago. They were asking which team members had children and how to work with them. Some people got doctor’s certificates and said they couldn’t work. Some people changed their hours a little bit so they were less with the public. We have people who would usually work during the day that now work at night.

You do get told one thing then somebody says something else though. What sort of payment they’re going to receive if they’re off work or on sick leave, all these questions people have at the moment.

Has your employer been quite transparent about what pay everyone will receive?

Only recently. There’s a discretionary leave that they can apply for. And we’re saying if something in your health changes or your family situation, let us know and we can help and work a plan out for you.

Are you guys getting bonuses for your work in these tough times?

They provide us with a lunch. But a lot of people have decided they don’t want to share a lunch. They’ve increased our staff discount from 5% to 10%.

But as far as a monetary thing, no. And a lot of people think that they should get something else from their normal pay rate because of the risk they’re putting themselves in and their families.

Absolutely!

We can sanitise everything all the time but we know that this virus can stick to things for x amount of time. And your hands are drying out and getting sore from the sanitiser. You don’t want to put the sanitiser on cos your hands are sore, and you have to because you want to look after yourself. They’re going to put screens up at the checkout but we’re not sure when we’re going to get them. And they’re limiting the number of people coming in store, but today, we still had people coming in in groups. Mum, dad and the two kids, the kids running around the supermarket. That’s not what this time is about, this time is about just one person coming and shopping for the whole household.

In the peacetime, the time before all this, did you like your job?

Yeah I like my job! But a lot of people just look down on us, like ‘oh you work in a supermarket’.

Do you think people appreciate now that you’re more important to how society functions than they realised?

Yeah. Yeah. People do realise we are important, supermarket workers. They know now that when we pack the bags, we do it in a certain way that takes practise, so you can get them home safely. But in general, supermarket workers are low paid.

 Would you like to see that change?

Yes I would. We’re fighting for the living wage. We’re on a pathway towards that. Some of the people at other chains are just getting minimum wage.

We all know that you can’t cover all your costs, have some nice things and have some savings on minimum wage. That’s unfair. No one should do any job and not be allowed to have that.

I won’t keep you from your family any longer. But now day one of lock down is done, you’re at home in your bubble, how do you feel?

Um… I’ve survived the day. And I guess I’ll just do it all again tomorrow. I’ll take it day by day. I’ve had some health issues and I think I need to take it easy at some point so if things get worse, and I need to stay at home, I will. But at this stage I feel ok going to work. I feel as safe as I can be doing my job. We’ll take it each day as it comes but I hope people are going to abide by the rules so we’re not here for longer than four weeks.



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.