It’s interesting that the very jobs many consider to be worthless are the ones that are deemed essential during a pandemic. The countless times I’ve overheard people demean employees at Walmart, McDonald’s, anywhere where a college degree isn’t necessary to be employed didn’t prepare me for the glaringly obvious—these are the essential workers during a global emergency. These are the people who cannot stay home. These people keep our society running. And I’m one of them.
My first job was at Chick-Fil-A. Since then, I’ve worked retail, McDonald’s and most recently, for Shipt, an app that allows for grocery delivery with stores like Target, CVS and Meijer. Having worked in customer service the past four years, through multiple Black Fridays and Christmas seasons, I truly believed I’d seen it all. I’d seen every red-faced customer, spitting at me in their frustration that something wasn’t marked down enough, every may-I-speak-to-the-manager? Karen you could dream up.
The best moments included me whirling around saying, “I am the manager,” and witnessing their utter astonishment. I’ve seen emptied shelves and racks of clothing, torn apart stores as if a tornado had whirled through and Western Kentucky grocery stores lacking butter, milk and eggs due to an incoming snow storm. But absolutely none of those experiences prepared me for the first month of quarantine.
Shipt is an app that allows you to order your groceries from your store of choice in the app, pick a delivery time and have a direct connection to your shopper. It’s a fun way to make money, as I get to pop in my headphones, listen to a podcast and shop by myself. It’s the first customer service job I’ve had where I’m generally left alone and I love it. Occasionally, if something a customer requested is out of stock, I’ll text them with a typical, “Hey! This is your Shipt shopper. It looks like the store is out of 2% milk. Would you like fat free or 1% instead?” and then I wait for a response. Sometimes I can sub out things to the best of my ability and the customers aren’t picky. It’s a relatively low-stress job, I just have to make sure I deliver on time in order to keep up my rating and ensure a tip.
Fun fact: most delivery workers survive off of tips. Remember this.
When the pandemic hit and quarantine began, my first instinct was to keep working. My sister and my roommate are immune-compromised and I knew that many of the people who use Shipt were likely immune-compromised as well. I wanted to do my part, and make sure I had money to pay rent, so I spent a lot of time taking orders within the first few weeks.
It’s better that I, a healthy 20-year-old who could likely fight off the virus if caught, am traipsing all throughout the grocery stores and braving the germs so the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, etc. don’t have to go out. My issues weren’t with the customers. I’ve, surprisingly, never dealt with anyone who’s been rude. My issues were with a lack of stock. And it was beginning to get scary.
Once, I had a pretty small order, worth around $50. The customer needed ibuprofen and alcohol wipes. The pharmaceutical shelves were wiped clean with no trace of anything. I had to break the news to my customer who was elderly and sick. She thanked me and said hopefully next time, but I could tell she was worried.
Multiple customers begged me to find toilet paper, paper towels, flushable wipes, anything. The shelves were lined with signs reading, “Due to high demand, please limit to 2 per customer,” yet the shelves were so empty, you didn’t even know what was supposed to be there. These signs were littered all over the store on things like milk, eggs, toiletries, cans of soup and bread. Some customers would order 12 cans of soup and I could only limit them to four. Sometimes I couldn’t find bread or bagels. Fruit and vegetables were running low. Items were also limited depending on location; for example, certain items would be limited in Colerain that weren’t limited in Florence.
It got to the point that I’d text a customer in the beginning stating that due to high demand, many items they requested would likely be out of stock.
“Would you prefer me to text you every time a sub is needed, or would you just like an update at the end of the shop?” I’d text. Usually, they asked me for an update at the end and to try my best to find what they needed.
I was starting to get more worried the longer the pandemic ensued. I didn’t have a mask or gloves, and I mentioned that to a customer in passing. She was a nurse and left me gloves on her front porch so I didn’t have to shop bare-handed anymore. Despite the mess humanity is witnessing right now, there are random acts of kindness that help you to believe that not everyone is all that bad. Then that feeling is quickly wiped away when you’ve shopped an almost $300 order for three hours and aren’t tipped.
Almost inevitably, I got sick. I’m still not sure if it was actually COVID-19, but my doctor seemed to think I had enough symptoms to warrant a two week self-quarantine period. I was sick, definitely. My chest constantly felt like Thor had just dropped his hammer on it and left it there. I had days long migraines, fever, a severe lack of energy that made standing for longer than 30 seconds exhausting and a slight cough.
So don’t you dare tell me essential workers aren’t worth anything. Grocery employees, restaurant employees, delivery drivers and health care workers are going to work every day so that you don’t have to step into this mess. I didn’t go anywhere other than Target and Meijer for weeks and still got sick. Health care workers are catching the virus and dying. Delivery drivers are continuing to deliver your food or groceries so you don’t have to go out and risk catching the virus.
If you want to support your essential workers, tip your delivery drivers. Do not take out your anger and frustration on employees. Follow social distancing protocols (yes, I’m looking at you, person at the grocery store who stands way too close to me while I’m making sure I’m getting the right brand of mac and cheese for my customer). Only go out for the essentials. And if you can, use delivery services for your food and groceries. You’re limiting your exposure while supporting people who are relying on their delivery jobs to pay the bills right now.
Christmas season madness and Kentuckians’ irrational fear of snow storms that never amount to more than a dusting could not have prepared me for the apocalyptic scenes I’ve witnessed in every major grocery store in the tri-state area the past couple months. Even after the initial panic, stores are still lacking inventory due to so much hoarding. Stop panic buying. Stop hoarding. Other people need food, toilet paper and cleaning supplies. People who have chronic illnesses need alcohol wipes and medicines more than the rest of us do right now.
When you shop, be kind. When you order, be kind and leave a tip. We depend on it.