An Insider Account of “The Most Stable Work in the Country” During COVID-19

If I hear the words ‘toilet paper’ one more time in the not-too-distant future, I might scream.

Working in a regional chain supermarket store as a casual shelf-stacker or night-fill was a really good job for its flexibility around university classes and fairly reliable income stream.

The shifts usually followed a predictable and familiar flow: take the product, find it on the shelf, rotate the stock, recycle the box, rinse and repeat.

And then COVID-19 hit.

As the realisation that this wasn’t “just another flu” crept over the nation, the job I’d removed from my LinkedIn profile months ago suddenly became the most stable and secure work in the country.

Suddenly, a regional supermarket store was suddenly scrambling to address a global pandemic.

My once familiar workplace now shapeshifts daily, transforming to meet the needs of unprecedented conditions.

Ironically, we’d just introduced a thumbprint scanner for clocking in when the crisis hit. So, the earliest change was mandatory hand-sanitation before and after touching the scanner.

Employees were issued new hi-vis vests and instructed to sanitise trolleys and baskets each night after closing. Checkout staff now carry hand sanitiser, changing their gloves after every customer transaction.

Opening hours have shifted to allow for a seniors’ hour and tape on the floor marks the now-fabled 1.5 metres for social distancing.

Items once considered shopping list staples are now in short supply. Bread, tinned vegetables, condoms and pasta sauce are now a hot commodity. As is flour, pasta, pet food, paper towel, ramen and – perhaps most infamously – toilet paper. But please don’t talk to me about toilet paper, I’ve probably already heard it three times today.

In the last week, the employee base has been divided into two teams to limit potential exposure. It’s a system adopted from the local medical practice. Employees aren’t to enter the store on days they aren’t rostered on to work.

Colleagues and community Facebook groups rant about unverified tales “city panic-buyers” coming to the region via charter busses and what should be done to stop them hoarding stock.

Two weeks ago, I scoffed at the idea of a ‘supermarket bouncer’ in response to these rumours. Now, a security guard manages the number of customers entering the store.

You’ve probably heard plenty of the aforementioned details mentioned in the nightly news bulletin. What isn’t reported on is the effect this is having on the front lines.

When shoppers began panic-buying, our supplier limited on the amount of stock able to be ordered.

Early in the crisis, an order of 5,000 cartons fell short by nearly half.

As a night-fill stocker, this takes its toll. It’s hard to garner job satisfaction when large sections of shelves remain bare despite working until midnight, knowing the checkout staff will face the consequences when frustrated customers arrive in the morning.

For essential workers, mental health must be treated as a priority amid this crisis.

Officially, we’ve been given a link to the state government’s health website and a voucher for the flu vaccine.

And, while shifts provide a social environment and brief break from isolation, working during a pandemic takes a unique toll.

The risk to workers’ physical health is a significant source of mental and emotional stress.

Some customers can make the burden worse, but plenty offer smiles and a simple “how’s it going?”

Sadly, this kindness isn’t always extended to checkout staff as they adapt to enforcing buying limits while working shifts that are longer, busier and pose a greater health risk.

Many customers are understandably stressed and upset, and checkout staff often cop the brunt of this.

Unfortunately, this was the case before the pandemic, only exacerbated by the current conditions.

But, occasionally, a checkout person receives a gift from a customer as a gesture of thanks.

Facebook and Instagram posts about being courteous to essential service workers have all but replacing the “Thank You Firies” posts of yestermonth.

Australia is still in the early phases of this outbreak. Even three weeks ago, it was impossible to predict how COVID-19 would affect day-to-day life today.

And, unfortunately, what the future holds isn’t much clearer. For now, social distancing is the new normal, and at the time of writing, there is no clear finish line in sight.

The best that most of us can do is stay home, wash your hands, look after yourself and be extra kind to the people around you, particularly our essential workers.

Image by Rachel Darling