Ottawa·Point of View

Tired, afraid and still getting screamed at

This year has been rough on everyone, but especially people whose jobs included keeping grocery stores and gas stations open. CBC spoke with two such workers of them early in the pandemic, and now, with 2020 almost over, we're checking back in.

A grocery store worker and a gas station attendant say 2020 hasn't gotten any easier

An Ottawa grocery store worker and gas station attendant say after nine months of working through the pandemic, they often struggle to remain optimistic. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This year has been rough on everyone, but it's perhaps toughest for those who work on the front lines — and not just those caring for others in hospitals and long-term care homes.

In the early days of the pandemic, CBC Ottawa checked in with people whose jobs included keeping grocery stores and gas stations open, asking them to share their first-person experiences. 

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As we ring in the new year amidst another lockdown, we've asked them again how they're feeling about 2020. CBC has agreed to withhold both workers' names because they fear losing their jobs for going public.

Some customers say thanks for staying open, but an Ottawa gas station attendant says many are frustrated with new rules that limit their operations during COVID-19. (Ken Ruinard/The Associated Press)

Same frustration, same frozen spit

In May, a 23-year-old gas station attendant told us what it's like cleaning up after customers who wipe snot on the pumps and get angry if they can't get change for a $100 bill. 

She said before COVID-19 she loved her job, but the fear of catching the virus made her question going into work.

Nine months later, that same attendant says her job has become both easier and harder.

More regulars drop by, often for something small like a pack of cigarettes just as an excuse to get out of the house. She says it's nice to say hi, see a friendly face or hear a thank you.

Then, as she explains, there are the angry customers.

We don't have a certain type of cigarette? People get mad at me for it. We don't have a certain scratch ticket? People get mad at me for it. Even gift cards — my location can't sell them and people get mad at me for that. 

I still have to clean up after people. Frozen spit is so much fun!

There are days that I don't want to get out of bed to go to work. I'm 24 now and still absolutely terrified of catching it. But I'm one of two people in my household working, so I keep going.

Also, I know that if I don't, I know who's taking my shift . And I don't want him to, because he's on the older side. I worry a lot more about him getting sick than me, right? 

In the spring, when I shared my story with CBC, I think it made a difference as to how people treated me. I had people come in and be like, "Thank you for staying open!" or just asking, "Hey, are you OK?"

There are days when I don't want to get out of bed to go to work.- Gas station attendant

When I'm having a rough day I'll go back and look at all the comments and kind words on that story and they help me get through the day. 

I still love the job, especially getting that one-on-one contact with customers. It's just the times that I get screamed at or dealing with the so-called "Karens" of the world that's the downside.

We're a community. As much as some people like to forget it during this time, we should be coming together and thinking more about each other than just ourselves. 

An Ottawa grocery store worker says she sees groups of five or six at her store, despite signs asking that only one person per household do the shopping. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Bad behaviour at the cash

In April, CBC Ottawa spoke to a 58-year-old grocery store worker who shared how discouraged she felt working in a high-risk setting and dealing with customers who wouldn't follow the rules.

She said her hands were raw from using so much hand sanitizer, and she worried about bringing home the virus to her daughter and two young grandchildren.

Nine months later, that grocery store worker says that aside from her company scrapping their $2 hourly wage bonus, "not much has changed at all."

Besides the mask-wearing, it's more or less people still come in with five or six family members to shop, still give dimes and nickels with bare hands, things like that. 

We don't have as many limits [on buying items] like we did at the beginning — just on the Lysol wipes. But then, I had a gentleman come in yesterday who went through my cash with two large containers of Lysol wipes. A few minutes later I saw he was going through another cash with two more. 

Getting paid more, we felt like we were doing something heroic. But they took that away.- Grocery store worker

I said to him, "Sir, do you do realize that you're only allowed to take two, right?" He did not care about what I said at all. I mean, it's not like he's going to jail or anything. It's just a moral compass, you know?

One Ottawa grocery cashier says after months of gloves, masks and sanitizer, she sometimes feels defeated. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

We point out the signs that say "Please only bring one member of your household to the store," but people are so used to seeing those signs after all these months that they don't care. 

I don't know if people are just so sick and tired of thinking about it, but if you walk into the store, it's almost like it's not an issue anymore. Unless your family has been touched by it personally, I don't think anybody takes this seriously.

I'm going to be 59 soon. It's still a very scary situation, but I'm between a rock and a hard place financially. 

We lost our $2-an-hour raise, which was such a big help financially and mentally. Getting paid more, we felt like we were doing something heroic. But they took that away, which just brought it home that you are no longer that essential.

My daughter and grandkids are still living with me, so I make sure that I wash and disinfect everything before I leave work. And I thank god that me and my family have been safe.

A woman in a surgical mask returns a cart after loading groceries into the back of her car at Sherwood Forest Mall in London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC)

But, sometimes I feel defeated, because it's like, is it ever going back to normal?

I hate it because I was always that person whose glass was always half full. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. 

There's not much you can do except put one foot in front of the other or lay down and die. So I trudge through.