Supermarket work is never easy at the best of times. There are always difficult customers, shoplifters, rowdy schoolkids and so on. During England’s first lockdown, people waved at delivery drivers and applauded them like health workers. But as the pandemic has worn on, many supermarket staff feel forgotten, anxious and unsafe.
I took a position in a large branch of a major supermarket chain at the end of November, when England was still in its second national lockdown. The store is in London’s zone 2, nearly a two-hour tube commute from where I live with my mum, and I was wary of the risks posed by the long journey on public transport, as well as the prospect of meeting large numbers of customers each day. But after five months on universal credit, I was desperate to take any job.
Supermarkets are one of the most common places that people catch Covid-19, and the British Medical Journal has reported high levels of asymptomatic cases in the people who work there. If you think about it, the conditions are perfect: supermarkets are large, often poorly ventilated spaces. Thousands of visitors, who may stay for 20 minutes or an hour depending on what they’re buying, pass through every day. Social distancing is often difficult, particularly when queueing or selecting items from the shelves.
Every day, I stand by the door of the shop and monitor the numbers going in and out. Ostensibly this prevents overcrowding and helps to protect people from coronavirus. But it often feels like the job has been created purely to assuage customers’ anxieties and uphold the brand’s image. The maximum number of customers allowed in the store is still high – more than 300. Despite the recent introduction of a compulsory mask policy across the chain, many customers speak to me without wearing a face covering; some pull them down when they talk.
Both anti-maskers and devout rule-followers can be troublesome. At the tills, people often pay with cash instead of cards, and regularly lean around screens to talk with cashiers. I’ve seen someone pull down their mask to wipe their nose with their hand before passing over their store membership card. Staff call the self-checkout area “the cage”: a small, Perspex-enveloped space in which it’s impossible to socially distance, where customers rarely stay two metres apart or move away when you arrive to untag their alcohol or fix a problem with the scale.
Tensions can run high. I’ve witnessed several fights break out between customers because one of them stood too close to the other. Staff have been admonished for not enforcing the rules, although the store forbids us from telling people what to do. We share customers’ fears, and it’s disheartening to be harassed by people who share your concerns. One woman recently threw her shopping basket at my feet, as she felt she couldn’t stay in the store because it was too crowded. I agreed with her point, but I also wish that I hadn’t needed to go and put all her food back in the fridges.
My store has more than 300 employees, a large proportion of whom have taken time off after catching Covid-19, though it is impossible to tell exactly how many. Managers don’t tell staff when they’ve been in contact with a colleague who has tested positive, so they have no idea that they need to isolate. Staff members catch the virus from one another and continue coming into work, unaware until they start experiencing symptoms. Earlier in the pandemic, a manager tried to deny my co-worker sick pay when she had to self-isolate. Many of my colleagues are elderly, disabled or otherwise vulnerable, and I’m concerned they could be taken advantage of in this way.
Despite the risks they face, supermarket workers have received no extra support from the government. There has been no hazard pay, no extra time off, no extended sick pay. No pressure has been put on the government by the public or the opposition to set up any kind of scheme that would help us. It’s hard not to feel unsupported and overlooked by the thousands of people we serve every day.