What it means to be an 'essential worker' a year into the pandemic

Andy Downing
Hill's Market staff (from left) Amanda Anderson, Morgan Hoxworth, Megan Beaudette and Lori Wallace

Early in the pandemic, at least to some employees at theHills Market Downtown, there appeared to be more public appreciation for the “essential workers” who staffed grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants and the like, keeping the wheels turning so that everyone else could sequester more safely at home.

Now, with our coronavirus-shaped reality about to stretch into its second year, these contributions have been taken for granted to a point where some customers almost entirely overlook the presence of the workers while shopping.

“Customers will distance from each other but not us,”Hills Market wine and cheese director Amanda Anderson said. “It’s almost like we’re just a part of the store.”

“They call us essential but we’re really just sacrificial,” said Lori Wallace, Hills Market manager and self-described “grocery overlord” (a designation included in her email signature), who added that the essential worker tag long ago evolved into a dark inside joke among the staff. 

Prior to the pandemic, a bulk of the business at Hills Market centered on its prepared foods section and a booming lunch trade, with few customers relying on the store as a primary grocery stop. But Wallace said this dynamic shifted virtually overnight last March, returning from a weekend trip to Atlanta to find the shop in disarray. “I had never seen my grocery department more ravaged, all the toilet paper, all the paper towels,” she said. “At first it was tricky; we’d get something in, like toilet paper, and the next day it would all be gone. It would be like, ‘Well, hopefully we’ll get more toilet paper next week.’ It was a guessing game for a while."

“We’ve always been a store that has done smaller sales but a lot of them,” general manager Megan Beaudette said. “So it was different to have people walking up [to the register] with full shopping carts versus coming in and grabbing a quick lunch.”

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In those early weeks, there were massive changes to nearly every aspect of the business. The market closed its prepared food section in accordance with state mandates, and the attendant drop in revenue required Wallace to lay off eight kitchen workers, most of whom have since been brought back. The ordering process, which had long been dialed in, also required constant adjustment, with shoppers purchasing significantly more canned goods, cleaning supplies and kitchen staples such as eggs, flour and yeast. And then there was the still-problematic enforcement of mask mandates, which occasionally led to workers being forced to confront irate customers who refused to comply — some more vehemently than others.

“One lady tried to set me on fire with a lighter,” Wallace said, and laughed.

These kinds of interactions, along with the daily pressures of working a public-facing role amid a health crisis, have had an impact on the mental health of staffers across the board. “Everyone’s dealing with it in their own way,” Wallace said. “Some people certainly were more concerned about being on the front lines and not having the option of staying home. Some people were more depressed, worrying about being here. And others were more like, ‘I gotta do this. At least I have a job. I’m paying the bills.’ But it has an effect mentally.”

“There’s added pressure feeling responsible for everyone around me,” Beaudette said. “I would have felt bad if someone got [COVID] from the store because of something small we didn’t do, like, ‘Oh, we didn’t wipe down that one cart,’ or, ‘We didn’t sanitize after that one customer.’ … It can be scary because you’re responsible for keeping everyone safe and healthy.”

While these kinds of internal struggles are increasingly common to those navigating the current viral landscape, in other regards Hills Market has been a pandemic-era rarity. Recently, much has been written aboutthe coronavirus-driven “shecession,” which has seen a disproportionate number of women leaving the workforce. According todata from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., more than 11 million women have lost their jobs since February, while another 2.65 million have left the workforce. Hills Market, in contrast, is run by a nearly all-woman leadership team, including Wallace, Anderson, Beaudette and Morgan Hoxworth, who heads the beer department, which has helped create an environment that the three interviewed all described as unique within their respective work histories.

“I just feel like there’s a different attitude when you have more women working in the same area,” Wallace said. “Especially in a job like this, where you have no one else to rely on but the people running the store. You have to work almost as a family.”

“In general, as women, I think we just have a better understanding of what each one of us goes through,” said Beaudette, who has had the added difficulty of navigating a pregnancy and raising a newborn while working in a public-facing role amid a pandemic, which has brought its own set of pressures and uncertainties. “And I think they all rallied behind me, especially with having to take maternity leave. They were like, ‘You do what you have to do to raise your baby, and we’ll hold down the fort until you come back,’ and they did just that, and I didn’t have to worry about anything.”

At the same time, the makeup of the staff can create additional hurdles, at times, particularly when dealing with unruly customers. “We have a male manager, and if he tells someone to put a mask on, or that they need to leave the store … they’re much more likely to respond positively,” said Anderson, who drew a contrast between the internal camaraderie felt by the workers and these more challenging occasional public interactions. “I’ve been told by someone that they don’t like my tone when I told them to wear a mask. … And I wonder if that [message] would be received differently if we were a bunch of guys. We definitely wouldn’t be accused of not being polite, or of using the wrong tone. I’ve never heard anybody say that to a guy.”

While aspects of working in a grocery store amid COVID have become routine, from wearing a mask eight-plus hours a day to the myriad additional sanitation steps required of staffers (wiping down carts and touchscreens and constant hand washing and sanitizing), the whole enterprise is still underpinned by a nagging uncertainty that really hit home for Anderson when she finally took some overdue time off at the tail end of 2020.

“I took a stretch of like 12 days off, which let me have the experience that so many other people have had this year. And I know working from home sucks, and people miss each other, but it was such a relief to know what your day was going to be like,” she said. “You don’t have to go into work worrying about which customer is going to fight with you about wearing a mask, or who is going to invade your personal space in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or who you interacted with that tested positive for COVID this week.”

“This country is divided in a lot of ways, but the people who are going to work are not having the same [pandemic] experience as the work-from-home people, which seems to be the experience everyone has latched onto and talks about, like it’s what we’re all going through. But it’s not that way for your DoorDash driver, or the person at Chipotle or CVS,” continued Anderson, who recalled tearing up while watching commercials in which grocery workers were depicted as essential workers alongside more traditional honorees like nurses. “I get worked up about it, which is weird, but I appreciate it. That reaction comes from someone acknowledging we exist.”