Money

Angry Customers and Empty Shelves: My Life at Kroger During Coronavirus

To put it lightly, the last few weeks of work have been surreal and exhausting.
March 30, 2020, 1:54pm
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Collage by Vice Staff | Image via Getty

Working at a grocery store when most businesses have closed or resorted to working from home is sort of surreal. I’d love to stay locked inside for a few weeks just to catch up on rest, movies and TV shows, and household tasks. But I’ve worked in retail so long that I’m used to being excluded from the rules that apply to everyone else. I don’t work regular hours, I’m rarely off the whole weekend, and taking a vacation is difficult. All that’s really changed for me since the coronavirus took hold in this country is that I push myself past my limitations at work everyday because of the crowds. That and the traffic is much lighter.

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I work at a Kroger in Texas as the assistant head of the meat and seafood department. Right now, most customers’ mindset is that they’re lucky to get anything, but some are still picky and unreasonable when they can’t afford to be. They like to complain and make smart-ass remarks just for the hell of it. We’re all trying to stay afloat in this hectic time. Being a dick to the people you want something from isn’t going to help.

People are especially obnoxious when it comes to what is and isn’t available. One night when I recently closed the store, I was breaking down the seafood case and a woman who wanted catfish came by asking if we were closed. Even if we are closing, I generally don’t have an issue with getting something for someone after we’ve started cleaning up. The more product we can sell, the better. But we were out of fillets and whole catfish. We only had catfish nuggets. When I informed her and asked how much she wanted, she had an attitude and said something along the lines of, Well I don’t see a sign, so I don’t know how much I want. I told her they were $2.99 a pound. She turned away and looked in the other direction, then said she wanted two pounds.

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You don’t always get a thank you. But there are also people who are thankful for the services we’re providing. One woman kneeled down next to me while I was stocking breakfast sausage the other day and thanked me for everything I’ve done in a time of need. “Bless you,” she said.

Because of coronavirus, our store hours have had to change. We used to open 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. everyday, but are now open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.—probably so the employees have an extra hour to restock in the morning and the night crew has an extra couple hours to replenish the shelves. There is now a line to get in the store before it opens. I think the customers are just as frustrated as we are.

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Once we get to work, everything is pushed to the floor as quickly as possible and everything we have is gone by noon. It’s common knowledge that retailers are out of or incredibly limited when it comes to toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies, but the shelves that hold cat litter, tortilla chips, and coffee are all just as bare.

Customers generally still clean our department out on a regular basis too. Our cooler is practically empty each and every day. We’re grinding briskets and top sirloin just to have sufficient amounts of ground beef. We’ve been out of whole chickens for a while now, too, and people are still freaking out about that. It’s odd to me that during a time when people are supposed to be stretching their dollar as far as it can go, they are spending their hard-earned money on snow crab clusters that cost $14.99 a pound and $19.99 beef tenderloin.

Our truckloads have been limited, and they’ve limited our fresh product to 600 cases. We basically have to make our order and then take items off in order to meet that 600-case limit. We try and choose the most high-demand items, but we’re not going to get everything we want because the warehouse doesn’t have everything right now. It’s such a fruitless process sometimes. Not only is our warehouse limiting the amount of product we can order, but we’re still not getting over half of what we order. This is usually because the warehouse doesn’t have the product or it ran out of that item. This happens frequently when sales take off more than expected and the demand is simply higher than the supply. Our fresh meat section ordered more than 400 cases of product recently and we only received 179. Our truckloads have been reduced even further to 575, 550, and sometimes even 525 cases.

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Our warehouse began pushing out pallets of meat to certain stores, regardless of what our order says. We had no say in what they sent and we also had no control in how much product they sent. We ended up receiving full pallets of brisket, 10-pound bags of chicken leg quarters, and bone-in ribeye. We are traying up chicken and cutting meat from morning to mid-afternoon and are still getting hit as if the world was ending. Customers are also asking for items that are usually gone within a few hours or are items we simply don’t carry right now.

This past week, when the updates around coronavirus and social distancing were hitting a peak, we had this influx of customers ask for crawfish, which made us laugh. Most people like to boil crawfish with family or large groups of friends. With COVID-19, now’s not exactly the perfect time for that.

Popular Information’s Judd Legum reported in March that Kroger had decided to expand its sick leave policy during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing employees to take up to two weeks of paid sick leave if they think they have symptoms or want to go into self-isolation. Around the same time, Kroger also added an extra $25 to employees’ Kroger cards, to thank us for all that we’ve done during this trying time, and announced a one-time Appreciation Pay for the employees who have worked consecutively since the beginning of March. Full-time employees will receive $300 while part-time workers will receive $150.

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Kroger employees at the store here know about the Appreciation Pay and feel like they definitely deserve it, but I’m not sure they know about the new sick leave policy. There hasn’t really been an outbreak that has affected anyone at this store or anyone they know. It’s all been people they know through social media or a friend of a friend. Most of us only want to survive the day. It’s been so hectic and crazy that it’s been difficult to plan or think about anything other than the end of the current day. I’m also honestly unsure I even knew what the sick leave policy was prior to this. It seems to be similar at other Kroger stores in the area, as well. They’re more affected by nearly everything being closed over COVID-19 itself.

Our store manager has been thanking the staff every day before the store opens and expressing his gratitude for our hard work during an unusual and terrifying time. Most employees seem to be grateful that we’re still able to work and travel when most aren’t. But recently, I’ve felt exhausted and cherished my two off days every week. Overtime is available, but I generally don’t want it. I need those days off to recuperate. I have a herniated disc in my back that is even more problematic if I don’t get proper rest. The other employees in the meat department are overworked. There’s at least three people working overtime. One woman is working through her vacation right now just to help out. My boss has worked every day since February 26. He clocked in something like 83 hours one recent week.

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There’s talk of some Kroger stores closing, but the store I’m at is supposedly going to remain open. There may be reduced hours or a smaller crew working, but I feel like Kroger won’t completely close unless a loyal customer or an employee contracts COVID-19 and goes public about it. We are in constant competition with HEB and even if they decided to close Kroger would probably stay open for a longer period of time just to try to capitalize. I understand the business side of it and anything financially lucrative right now is like discovering a leprechaun that shits money on command. And who wouldn’t want to let that go?

A Stay Home Work Safe ordinance was put into effect Tuesday, March 24 in Harris County and, for now, lasts until April 3. It doesn’t impact grocery stores since we’re considered essential workers, but it restricts social gatherings and is intended to keep the public at home unless it’s absolutely necessary they go out. Personally, I would’ve enjoyed being at home for a week or two. I have enough savings to support myself for that long and this situation has already stretched all of us past our limitations. Besides, so many people are stuck at home not knowing how they’re going to pay bills or support themselves that part of me feels like I should have stayed home to allow somebody who isn’t as financially stable to earn something for themselves and their family.

There’s a comic floating around the internet where the Justice League acknowledges grocery store clerks and drive-thru attendants as fellow heroes. I feel like that’s a bit much, but there’s a part of me that appreciates it. Historically, grocery store employees have always been looked down on. It’s cool that people have been able to see how much we do on a regular basis, especially in a time of need. We’re able to keep you fed and stocked up on supplies when no one else can. I’m glad to have been a part of that, even if this we do everyday.

Try to keep that in mind when we return to some state of normalcy. I’m not seeking a reward for my service. I don't even really need any sort of official recognition. But a nod of acknowledgement or a handshake would be great when the thick fog of this plague finally lifts.

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