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What it’s been like working in a grocery store during a year of pandemic

Produce in a supermarket

Governor Whitmer announced this week Michigangers age 50 and up are eligible for the vaccine. But there are still many younger essential workers who still can’t get vaccinated, despite constant interaction with strangers. 

Front-line workers in Michigan’s food processing facilities, grocery stores, and big-box stores have had no choice but to show up for work, interacting with customers that are sometimes physically distanced, and sometimes not. 

Laura Boss and Abby Yeary both work in Ann Arbor at a regional grocery chain. Boss says her store has only a couple employees out of more than 100 who have been vaccinated. She says she’s frustrated grocery workers aren’t prioritized for vaccine throughout the state. 

“It's really upsetting, to be honest, especially when for an entire year you've had this, like, juxtaposition of being called a hero and being called an essential worker and being referred to with respect for, I mean, brownie points for politicians,” Yeary said. “But when it comes to actually receiving the help that you want and the protection of your life, that not coming through is just insulting.”

The city of Detroit announced at the beginning of February that essential workers, including food workers, are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. But the city is ahead of the state on that measure. 

Yeary started working at the store right as the pandemic put the nation on hold. Being trained to work in a grocery store at the beginning of the pandemic was a hectic experience. 

“Just so many guidelines,” Yeary says. “And it was such a benefit, I feel like, to everyone's health. But at the same time, it was something very new to get used to and learn all at once when before I was learning how to pull espresso properly and steam milk.”

As CDC guidelines changed, the management had to adapt and update their policies. Boss works on the administrative side of the grocery store. There were multiple aspects of grocery store management that she had to balance on top of changing regulations. 

“It was an all hands-on-deck situation. And so even though my job is more behind the scenes, I was frequently on the floor, frequently working, especially with the cashiers and assisting them. Working to dismantle different departments and rearrange things as we changed the layout of the store to accommodate,” Boss says.

Both Yeary and Boss say the customers in the store, for the most part, have been respectful of their policies, but there have been some customers who would refuse to wear masks and social distance. 

“How do I ask this person to politely pull their mask up without offending them so that we both have a meaningful interaction that doesn't end with someone being dissatisfied or taking things the wrong way?” Yeary says. 

But, Yeary says, despite the challenges, their coworkers have been a huge source of support through some of the darkest days of the pandemic.

“You know, we're not forced to be in this job,” Boss says. “We choose to be here every day. Every single one of us does. And I think that there is a strong sense of camaraderie and a strong sense of even family here. And we're here for each other and we know that we're in this together."

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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