News

Day in the Life: A Supermarket Worker on the Frontline of the Pandemic

"My mum jokes that I need a police escort to work."
Sirin Kale
as told to Sirin Kale
22 April 2020, 8:00am
Coronavirus diary for supermarket worker
Clara. Photo: courtesy of Clara; supermarket photo by Chris Bethell
Day in the Life is a series of diaries from people at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.

Clara* is a 22-year-old supermarket worker based in Cheshire, UK. We asked her to keep a diary of her life during the coronavirus lockdown.

Our supermarket opens at 8AM: when I arrived for my shift, there was a queue of about 30 people, waiting to get in. We’ve dedicated the first hour of shopping to the elderly, but it’s so difficult to enforce: lots of people say they’re shopping for their elderly relatives, and we’re not going to turn them away. You have to use your discretion. There was a security guard at work today – that’s never happened before. It’s all getting a bit intense. Management sent him there to protect us.

I normally work on the checkouts. I’ve been given hand sanitiser to keep behind my till, but it is still a bit scary. I’m not so worried about myself, because I’m young and in good health, but there’s that fear that if I get symptoms my whole family will have to be isolated. Doing my job, I do feel at risk. Management hasn’t explained what would happen if I got sick at work.

It’s so busy. The shelves are empty. It’s so strange to see. It’s been manic all week. There are huge queues everywhere and you’ve got to be in two places at once. I had to run from the till today and bring more trolleys in, because there weren’t enough left. I spent three straight hours on the till today without a break, serving customers. It was relentless.

Everyone’s trying their best to restock, but there’s just so much demand – it’s unbelievable. People kept coming up to me, saying, “Do you have this in stock?” Today, it was bread. Everyone was asking for bread. The other day, it was pasta. We haven’t had pasta since Monday. We’re putting out everything we have, there’s nothing in the store room. Normally, the store room is full. But now there’s so much demand that everything goes straight away.

You see how selfish some people can be. Our supermarket also does online orders, and last week one of my colleagues was having to pick someone’s order. They had loads of pasta, loo roll. We all thought it was crazy. It baffles me that people think they need that much stuff. Before they introduced restrictions, everyone was doing massive shops. It was busier than Christmas. There were a few people wearing masks and gloves, which seems a bit excessive. But I don’t want to judge anyone.

We haven’t had paracetamol for a while. Milk came in about halfway through my shift, but went almost immediately. There’s no rice, no pasta, barely any fresh meat. Management is shutting down all the fresh cheese and fish counters, and the cafe. It’s all hands on deck. Everyone is on the shop floor, serving customers and putting things out.

Empty supermarket shelves in London. Photo: Chris Bethell

Thankfully, they’ve imposed restrictions on items now: you’re only allowed to get one packet of loo roll per customer, and three of any other item. Alcohol isn’t capped at the moment – yet. But the caps are hard to enforce. The loo roll is a hot topic right now! I’ve been taking loo roll off people at the checkout, but some people beg it back: they say it’s for their elderly relatives, and I feel bad, so I let them have it.

There one this one man with four kitchen rolls in his trolley. I saw it and thought, ‘I can’t let him have this.’ But he said: “They’re for my elderly relatives who are nearly 90.” Who am I to say he can’t have it? You have to make a judgment call. Still, I did take a lot of toilet roll off people: I had a little stash of confiscated loo roll underneath my till. When I went and put it back on the shelves, ten seconds later it was all gone. It’s a joke.

I had a customer come in who was in the at-risk group for coronavirus. She’d wanted to do a big shop before going into isolation for four months, and there was nothing on the shelves. She was really upset. The older people in particular seem worried. Our supermarket is near an assisted living facility: normally you see them all the time, popping in to buy their groceries. But you never see them anymore: last week, one older man told me he was stocking before they locked him up. I thought that was really sad.

Towards the end of my shift, the government announced they’d be shutting bars and pubs. People started coming in and buying alcohol. A girl from a nearby pub asked for some empty boxes, so they could sort their stock out, before closing up.

One woman drove in to pick up an online order. When I checked the order on the system, it said, “No items picked.” That was strange, so I went back to chat with the manager. They said that none of the items were in stock, so they couldn’t pick the order. Not a single item! The customer was really annoyed. People are venting to us a lot. Tensions are rising. Some of my colleagues are saying, “I’m having enough of this.”

Not everyone is angry. One lady came up to me to say, “Thank you for intervening, when people were buying too much.” It’s really hard work, but I feel like I have a responsibility to keep going so we can protect the people who need the resources, the vulnerable people.

I have a university degree. These days, it’s hard to get a skilled job, even with a degree. It’s frustrating that the government sees jobs like mine as unimportant. Without people like me, no-one would be able to get their food. My mum jokes that I need a police escort to work.

@thedalstonyears