It started with toilet paper

From panic-buying to product restrictions, difficult customers and maintaining mental health, four supermarket employees share their experiences as they continue to work on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image source: Emily Piesse/ ABC News)

By Sezen Bakan | @sezenbakan

Between the end of February and beginning of March this year, supermarket employees around Australia have had to deal with unprecedented working conditions due to the public’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first product to fall victim to the sudden onset panic-buying? The humble roll of toilet paper.

Woolworths customer service team member and supervisor Josh Newman said, “One day I just showed up to work, and there was no toilet paper, and then it just gradually went on from there.”

“No toilet paper became no noodles, and no noodles…became no pasta sauce, and then no pasta sauce became no tomato sauce.”

For Coles night-filler Nicole Cercone, the panic-buying resulted in the busiest shifts she’s ever experienced in her four years in the position.

“We got to work one day… and we had a couple of team huddles,” Ms Cercone said.

“And [the grocery manager said] ‘Listen, we don’t know what’s happening with this virus, but you are stacking shelves for your loved ones, please remember that.’”

One of Ms Cercone’s co-workers described the situation as a “shit-show”, and she understood why when she began refilling her designated aisles.

“I had piles and piles of boxes on the ground, just – it was – I don’t even know how to describe it.

“I just sat there and went, ‘What the heck?’”

Toilet paper, pasta, canned goods and oats were the hardest hit products in Ms Cercone’s store at the time.

“I still can’t fathom how much stuff is just not on the shelves anymore.”

All major supermarkets have since enforced limits on the number of particular items customers are able to purchase, a move which Woolworths customer service team member and supervisor, Courtney Klenke, welcomed.

“A lot of people complain because they can’t get what they usually get, but the only reason we have certain stock on the shelves is because we stop people from buying everything,” Ms Klenke said.

While most customers have accepted product limits, others seemed determined to circumvent restrictions, returning to stores multiple times to buy excess products, or even becoming violent.

“I told a customer they couldn’t take [more than two packets of] noodles and they threw their entire [conveyer] belt of shopping at me,” Mr Newman said.

“Like, pushed it from the end [of the conveyor belt] … so it all flew at me.

“They ended up walking out, but they were crying and yelling at me …

“…Tensions are high at the moment…and [I think what I said] was like a breaking point.”

Ms Cercone felt some customers don’t realise supermarket employees are in the same boat.

“The items you can’t get in store, workers can’t get either,” Ms Cercone said.

“We stack the shelves but we still can’t get the items we’re looking for.”

Supermarket employees must also deal with the added pressure of potentially being exposed to COVID-19 whenever they work.

Self-isolation is not an option for ‘essential workers’ unless they have been definitively exposed to the virus, or have displayed symptoms.

IGA duty manager Anjelica Budarick and her co-workers are reminded of this at the beginning of every shift.

While most supermarkets are relying on hand-sanitisation and social distancing to ensure the health of their staff and customers, Ms Budarick’s store has also taken the extra precaution of checking each staff member’s temperature before they clock in.

“If your temperature is higher than 37.5 degrees, [employees must] go straight home as that’s considered a fever, which is one of the first signs [of COVID-19],” Ms Budarick said.

Adding to supermarket employees’ risk of contracting the virus is the continued violation of self-isolation orders by customers, a situation which has occurred multiple times in both Ms Cercone’s and Mr Newman’s respective stores.

Mr Newman said, “There are people… coming into the store now that are telling us, or are known to, be on an isolation order, and are contravening that to come in to buy groceries.”

“I don’t think they have [an excuse for coming in].

“[But they are] being told by the government to stay at home for 14 days – people don’t like that.”

At Ms Cercone’s store, some customers have also used fear of the coronavirus against staff.

She described an encounter a co-worker recently experienced with a customer who became angry because the store didn’t have everything he wanted.

He then proceeded to verbally abuse her co-worker, and deliberately coughed on every self-serve register.

The same day, another dissatisfied customer spat on all the bananas for sale.

The disregard for supermarket employees’ health, combined with the pressures of stores trying to recover from panic-buying and the fear of passing on the coronavirus to family members, can negatively affect supermarket employees’ mental health.

Ms Klenke said, “I think I’ve been personally a little bit more stressed out about it, and not wanting to come into work as much.”

“I know a lot of [my co-workers are saying] they just wanted to flat-out not rock up anymore, and they’re never that kind of person to say that.”

Mr Newman said work had become “emotionally draining” due to having to enforce limits, and being abused by customers as a result.

Meanwhile, Ms Cercone found the restrictions placed on public gatherings and sports had robbed her of her normal relaxation outlets, and so she “spiralled a bit” during the first week of panic-buying.

When it comes to what customers can do to help supermarket employees, everyone agreed that customers should avoid panic-buying, come in with as few family members as possible to aid social-distancing measures, obey self-isolation orders, and most of all, show staff basic courtesy and respect.

Ms Klenke said, “I wish a lot of people understood that we’re just here to help them.”

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