'Essential' grocery store workers adjust to new routines, realities

Andy Downing
Amanda Anderson at Hills Market Downtown

In the weeks since the coronavirus shut down much of the city, Amanda Anderson has slightly altered her morning routine.

After eating breakfast and before leaving for her job at Hills Market Downtown, Anderson, who works as the grocer’s wine and cheese director, now takes an extra moment to select a face mask from the handful that have been given to her. She received four from a customer who works as a fashion designer for Abercrombie, and another three from an older woman at her church, who gifted her the masks after Anderson delivered her toilet paper and bananas.

After arriving at the store, Anderson puts on her chosen mask, which used to feel suffocating to wear but has since become second nature. She then washes her hands for the first time, which is something she’ll do every 20 minutes or so throughout the day and sometimes more depending on her interactions. Afterwards, Anderson checks for any messages that have arrived via email and the store’s Facebook account, using a carefully sanitized computer to confirm incoming deliveries and update orders as needed. Previously, most interactions with sales reps took place in person, but now Anderson conducts business almost exclusively by phone or text message, which isn’t without its hurdles, including spell check’s incessant need to “correct” the spellings of the various wineries from which she orders.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your ducking inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Prior to the pandemic, Hills Market didn’t offer delivery or take phone orders, but that’s how the store conducts a bulk of its business these days. (The grocer initially offered online ordering, but pulled it because store inventory didn’t update in real time on the website, meaning staff had to cancel orders manually as shoppers purchased items that were actually out of stock.) The market still has some foot traffic, though, and Anderson said that the relatively few customers who still shop in the store tend to wear masks, which is a welcome change from the days prior to the March 23 enactment of Ohio’s “stay at home” order, when the concept of social distancing was still largely unknown to many.

“It would get pretty full in here, which was pretty intense, because half of the people wouldn’t want to obey any [social] distancing,” Anderson said of these earlier days. “I remember I initially got freaked out on March 11. I was supposed to pick up Thai food and go to my friend’s house that night … and I had just run a wine tasting in the afternoon where everyone was eating food off of big platters. This was right after I’d read an article about social distancing, which I had never heard of before, and I realized, ‘Oh, I need to be staying home.’ So I kind of freaked out that week … and wanted to cancel every event we had scheduled.”

During a wine tasting a few days later — the last the market would hold — Anderson kept her distance behind the bar, though she recalled one customer who made a crack about the virus before removing a dollar from his pocket, wiping his nose with it and placing it in her tip jar. “Not everybody was on board [with social distancing requirements] then, and I didn’t really know what the line was,” Anderson said. “I threw the dollar bill in the trash, but I was mostly just horrified by his disregard.”

When interviewed in mid-April, Anderson said her anxieties had decreased in the weeks since, and she’d recently completed a shift that felt as normal as any since the pandemic first hit. The general weirdness of our current state can still arrive in odd waves, though, whether Anderson is sanitizing her work station or applying lotion to her dried-out hands at the end of a work day in which she’s washed and dried them dozens of times. “It can still seem overwhelming, and there are times I’ll get home and just sit [inside the car] in my driveway,” said Anderson, who embraces these few moments to steel herself for the various sanitation steps that need to take place once she steps inside, when all she really wants to do is cook dinner and collapse on the couch.

Additionally, Anderson said she still struggles with the idea of suddenly being viewed as an “essential” worker, having long felt as if some outsiders regard her career with a downward glance.

“A lot of people don’t seem to take this work seriously. Nobody has ever said this directly to me, but it’s almost like, ‘You don’t have a real job. You work in a grocery store,’” said Anderson, noting that the pandemic had further uncovered the country’s top-heavy pay structure. “It’s like all of these people that make three times as much as me are working from a computer at home, and now I’m essential to them, which feels nice but also unbalanced. … It’s a strange spot to be in. My job always felt legitimate to me, but this is almost legitimizing it [for outsiders], like, ‘Oh, maybe we actually do need these people.’”