Nfld. & Labrador·First Person

Stress, strain and, yes, fear: Retail workers have felt it all through the pandemic

Everyone has been feeling the pressure of COVID-19, and that includes retail workers who have been keeping the public supplied with the things they need, writes Nathan Barnes.

Retail workers takes risks every day so that the public can get what they need

Nathan Barnes has been working in retail for about a decade. Even so, the last few months have been especially challenging. (John Gushue/CBC)

For the retail world in Newfoundland and Labrador, it was business as usual until the middle of March. That's when the government declared a public health emergency over COVID-19, and began issuing orders that shut down almost everything except essential services.

This meant that only stores or businesses selling products or services you require for everyday life could remain open.

Even those faced regulation and direction from the public health officials on everything from regulating six feet of physical distancing to sanitization methods, locations and frequency.

While all these measures were needed for the greater good and health of the general public, no one has felt the strain, stress and frankly fear like retail employees.

To tell you a little of myself, I have worked in retail for approximately 10 years. I have seen the highs and lows of the industry in that time, and even I wasn't fully braced for what COVID-19 would mean for all of us on the front line.

From a distance, my life has not changed much at all. In the morning I get up, get ready for work and then head to my job. At the end of the day I go home, curl up and watch some Netflix. Then I sleep and then repeat the process.

To anyone not working in the pandemic, that sounds pretty average.

A lot of extra work to keep everyone safe

It's what is happening in the hours between me getting to work and coming home that have changed the most.

Across the board, essential stores have increased handwashing and sanitization, installed barriers at their registers, and placed physical distancing markers and directional cues throughout their stores. These measures are used to aid the public in maintaining the physical distancing requirements set out by public health officials.

Colemans grocery stores were among some of the first businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador to install barriers between customers and cashiers in the middle of March. (Submitted by Greg Gill)

Additionally, all touch surfaces must be sanitized regularly in an effort to keep the dreaded coronavirus from spreading.

That means retail workers who already lug and slug products to shelves every day now face an even greater workload in order to serve the public.

It would be hard to accurately estimate the number of customers any given retail employee may see in the run of a day during the pandemic. It would, however, be a fair assessment that the general public is a large mass of people who access the marketplace every day.

The pressure to stay healthy is top priority

Ultimately, each individual represents another exposure to employees at any given store. The fear that retail workers express, not only for their own health but for those they love, is immense. Their health, their livelihood, their family and friends are all at stake, so the pressure to not become infected is undeniably always their top priority.

Yet there is still a job to be done, and do it they must.

Then there are the customers themselves. It's a well-known fact in retail that as hard as you may try, there will always be some customers that cannot be satisfied. The stress of the pandemic has made things both worse and better.

On the whole, the vast majority of the public — as stressed as we all are — seem to be actively doing their part to get through this together.

Barnes writes retail workers risk their own health every day so the public can live their lives at the level to which they are accustomed. (Shutterstock)

However, as many of you have probably seen in your own shopping excursions, there are members of the public who just won't follow the rules. That ranges from walking the wrong way down clearly marked aisles to ignoring physical distancing of not just employees but other customers.

There are also customers of almost the opposite sort. There are those who are so stuck to the regulations that they are blatantly rude to retail employees as they struggle to get through their workday.

They make comments to workers as they move through aisles to reach a product's location, or tell cashiers about how to ring in products, or remark about the hygiene of retail employees in a generalized light. Horror stories about customers frequent breakrooms like never before.

It bears mentioning that we are all scared, stressed and tired.

No one wants to be sick or infect anyone else. It hangs over each of us, dictating our actions and responses.

There is no going back now. The only way is through.

So when you are out shopping, and you see someone stocking a shelf, remember that they are working so you can get the things you need.

They risk their own health every day, so that tomorrow you can have supper, get a shower and live your life at a level to which you are accustomed.

But most of all, remember: we're all in this together for what seems to be the long haul.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Nathan Barnes is a retail worker, journalist and drag artist who lives in the greater St. John's area.

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