Stoic supermarket workers providing essential services during COVID-19 pandemic

Emma Davidson 5 May 2020 12
Coles supermarket employee with mask and gloves while serving customer.

An employee at Coles in Manuka taking COVID-19 precautions during a transaction. Photo: Michelle Kroll, Region Media.

Supermarkets in Australia employ hundreds of thousands of workers, with more women than men, and many working part-time or casual at low hourly pay rates. And right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re essential workers.

Theresa* works in a large Canberra supermarket and says her job has changed during the past two months. With many more people in the store than usual, and more questions from customers who couldn’t find stock, staff often weren’t able to take breaks during their shift in the early stages of panic buying. Checkout operators are having to work faster to get customers through, pressure on rosters has increased as more staff are needed in store, and it is impossible to keep shelves stocked of certain items.

“I didn’t hear a positive word from a customer for about three weeks,” says Theresa. “A lot of the time when we walk around the store, customers just treat you like part of the furniture.”

She describes customers coughing and sneezing, and not allowing space for social distancing around store staff.

In response, many stores reduced opening hours to allow shelves to be restocked without customers around them, thus reducing transmission risk. This also improves access to restocked shelves during special opening hours for at-risk customers and health workers. Staff at greater risk have been able to take time off to avoid being in busy stores.

Rest and recovery between shifts is vital for people working on their feet in customer service all day, six days a week. Retail workers describe the job as being “a bit like acting” as they smile and offer a friendly face to everyone they meet, even when they feel as exhausted and stressed as many Canberrans during this COVID-19 crisis.

“Every now and then we have an aggressive customer come in. One threw a basket at me. They expect you to know exactly when stock is coming into the store, why certain fresh foods are so expensive,” says Theresa.

With constant changes as the health crisis continues and supply chains adjusting accordingly, management communicates frequently with staff to give them as much information as they can. But that doesn’t mean floor staff know when a particular product will be back on the shelf in their local store.

“It’s really hard to look like you know what you’re doing in your job when you get these questions that you just can’t answer … That would be like asking an APS3 [Australian Public Service Level 3 Work Level Standard worker] in the prime minister’s office to understand how every government department works. Just not possible,” says Theresa.

Her employer has always had an employee assistance service, offering mental health support to staff, but the company is promoting the service to its staff more than ever as a result of the extra workload and personal stress everyone in the community is facing.

Customers who offer a friendly word and a smile make a real difference to tired and stressed staff. Theresa says comments such as, “thank you for being here”, or “thank you for continuing to feed us”, help her get through long and demanding days at work. Opportunities to help someone, such as finding a pack of toilet paper for an elderly woman when there’s none left on the shelf, remind her that the work she does has an impact on people’s lives.

“I’m very lucky to have this job now; so many people have lost their jobs,” says Theresa. “I’m proud of working here.”

* Name changed to protect privacy.


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12 Responses to Stoic supermarket workers providing essential services during COVID-19 pandemic
Marko Lehikoinen Marko Lehikoinen 4:29 am 14 Apr 20

These workers shouldn't be stressed or overworked, after all, weren't they supposed to be hiring tens of thousands of people to help with demand?

Judith Bates Judith Bates 11:46 am 11 Apr 20

My daughter and I go shopping together and we make a point of saying thank you and have a good day. Coles staff have always been helpful and friendly

Trish Roberts Trish Roberts 11:18 am 10 Apr 20

Thanks to all. I’ve restricted shopping in person but always the staff are friendly and helpful.

Annie Mills Annie Mills 9:47 am 10 Apr 20

A smile and a kind word goes a long way.

Ben Eveille Ben Eveille 10:24 pm 09 Apr 20

All front line staff cafe coffee shop takeaway workers etc all are in front line all deserve to be respected too

    Jean Wilson Jean Wilson 2:33 pm 10 Apr 20

    Ben Eveille they are by me and I have said so to them.

G'Lyz Wogly G'Lyz Wogly 10:11 pm 09 Apr 20

Hey that’s the guy who works at Coles Manuka. He’s a legend .

OldMan Wyatt OldMan Wyatt 9:38 pm 09 Apr 20

These front line staff deserve our support and respect.

Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 9:33 pm 09 Apr 20

Went to our nearest Coles for the first time in ages tonight and I was surprised to be greeted by someone at the entrance who said hello, told us the trolleys were unlocked (then the trolley guy brought one to us) and when I asked if they had hand sanitiser (our Supabarn has a hand santiser station at the entrance) she went to get me some.

In normal times I'd actually hate that sort of stuff because I just want to be left alone. But I really appreciated it today. Going to the supermarket has been kinda stressful lately. It was good to see a friendly face and feel looked after. I only said thank you but maybe I should send them feedback to let them know.

    Linda Gillespie Linda Gillespie 10:32 pm 09 Apr 20

    Lin Van Oevelen definitely send some feedback. They are doing it tough and worrying about getting Covid 19 & potentially taking it home to their families.

    Sue McIntosh Sue McIntosh 10:46 pm 09 Apr 20

    Lin Van Oevelen Hi yes I had the same experience at Coles Chisholm the lady on the checkout was so nice wished me a happy Easter and told me the opening hours tomorrow and it was genuine, with a smile. Happy experience.

    Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 9:09 am 10 Apr 20

    I tried, but I can't get their feedback form to work...

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