Don't shop for drapes or cough near us, take COVID-19 seriously: grocery store workers

Grocery store workers say the pandemic has increased tension amongst customers, some of whom aren't listening to precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A Walmart employee said some customers are coughing near staff and joking about the virus

Grocery store workers say some customers have coughed near them and joked about COVID-19 as the pandemic has transformed grocery stores. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Caitlin Tanghe tries not to think about how exposed she might be to COVID-19 when she starts her job at Walmart each day — but that isn't easy when her co-workers tell her about customers coughing near them and joking about the virus that has killed 17 in Hamilton and 2,674 in Canada.

"There's a certain type of customer that always disregards what you tell them," Tanghe, an employee at the Upper James Street location, told CBC News.

"What frustrates me is customers coming in for regular things and not essentials. Shopping for regular things like drapes are putting us at risk. I'm exposed to you longer."

Caitlin Tanghe said online sales at Walmart have tripled during the pandemic. She tries not to think about the potential of getting COVID-19. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)
A Metro cashier stands behind Plexiglass as customers pay for their groceries. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Grocery store employees are a part of the essential, front-line workers. 

While they aren't wearing scrubs and working out of an emergency department, grocery store staff are in frequent contact with strangers.

Now they serve customers behind a pane of Plexiglass, wash their hands every 30 minutes and try to keep track of how many customers are in the store. Strips of tape are sprinkled on the floors to keep customers away from each other and shoppers can only travel one direction down aisles.

"I'm telling people, 'These are one-way aisles, follow the directions on the floor' … and you have the couple of people that say 'Oh, I just need one thing, let me go get it,' " Tanghe said.

Jason Soloduik, the manager of Metro on King Street East, said it is up to customers and staff to be compassionate during the COVID-19 pandemic. His job has changed from keeping track of what is on shelves to keep tracking of how many people are in the store. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Jason Soloduik, the manager of Metro on King Street East, said the virus has changed the mood in his store.

"It's been challenging on both sides, there's a lot of people coming into the store and they're not working right now, so that's on their mind as they're shopping," Jason Soloduik, the manager of Metro on King Street East, said.

"People are coming overwhelmed and bringing it in with them."

Soloduik said one customer complained after the store let an elderly man with a disability skip the wait to get inside. 

Long, serpentine lines outside of grocery stores are just one aspect of the new 'normal' for shoppers and staff. Families aren't shopping together anymore and many only come once a week.

"In the beginning, there was a lot of mass buying and panic … tensions were high," Soloduik said.

Staff at Metro have been sanitizing surfaces, carts and baskets as customers eager to buy groceries wait in long lines outside the store. Management says all staff are provided PPE and wearing it is optional. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The Walmart team dealing with returned items has also been under fire as the store isn't accepting any returns during the pandemic. 

As an online sales lead, Tanghe said the department has seen triple the number of orders, which has left them scrambling to finish orders before customers arrive. The store hired, roughly, 25 temporary employees, all of whom are finishing training in three or four days instead of the usual 10 days.

Increased online sales forced Walmart on Upper James Street to hire about 25 new temporary workers for the department. The online sales allow for a relatively contactless experience as orders are put in a week in advance and employees load the customer's vehicle. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

When the virus crept toward Hamilton in early March, employees at Walmart and Metro started taking time off and those who kept working began to worry as positive cases began appearing in the city.

"People were saying "Oh, no,'" Tanghe said.

Many have returned to work and staff also received $2 hourly pay bumps.

And over the last few weeks, both Metro and Walmart say customers are becoming better at understanding all the changes.

Soloduik hopes it stays that way.

"We just have to be more compassionate."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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