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Noël Waltz works at a grocery store in Cincinnati.

‘Scared and tired’: My story of working during a pandemic

Some of us do this work for only $10 an hour

It was my first day back to work after NKU moved to virtual courses and the quarantine was announced. A woman with neatly styled brown hair and a pearl bracelet comes through my check out line. I scan her groceries and, expectedly she asks, “How are you?” 

It felt strange hearing such a familiar phrase go from a passive conversation starter to a question of great concern. 

There have certainly been times in the checkout line when I have lied and said I was “fantastic!” even though I was, in fact, not. This time it felt like more of a lie. It was no place to say what I am really feeling, but I couldn’t force another “fantastic!” or even an “I’m good!” 

“I’m okay, and you?” I said.

“I’m doing well. I’m so happy that you are open. Although you probably aren’t…” she paused for a second. “You should feel lucky to have your job. My daughter moved back home from her dorm this weekend. She was laid off.” 

“Have a good day,” I said, visually disappointed. 

What threw me off the most about this interaction was the fact that I didn’t say I was upset about being at work or that I wish that I’d been laid off. I can only imagine that she saw the distress in my eyes and the lack of elated customer service. 

“You should feel lucky.” Those words ran through my head for a week.

I’d just been told that my last year at university was going to be cut short. I knew the graduation ceremony would be canceled any day now. I lost a portion of my income from my campus job (I’m not paid directly by the university, so I did not qualify for the remainder of my income for the year.) My roommate had just been laid off from her job, and rent was due in a week. 

I have severe anxiety, so the threat of COVID-19 left me feeling absolutely terrified. Despite that, I had no choice but to go to work. I kept hearing on the news that a majority of the people who are not social distancing will contract the virus. So I felt as though I was just expected to keep going like nothing is happening and just wait for it to come for me. 

And I did that for $10 an hour. 

I work for a local produce market in Cincinnati. I stand at my register and I watch as hundreds come through our doors. I see the lines going down the sidewalk. At the end of the day, I see how much more the store is profiting right now. 

I do that for $10 an hour.

I watched as the new owner, the son of the previous owner, came up with social distancing ideas and implemented them without the input of the people who would actually need to work around and enforce them. That’s why the hole cut in the plexiglass in front of my register is cut too small for customers to effectively pay for their groceries with their card. That’s why we have an additional register up and running, one where it is completely impossible to adhere to social distancing guidelines with co-workers and customers, because “the customers were complaining about wait times.”

I did that for $10 an hour.

I continue to work. I fall behind in coursework because of general stress and working more hours. I keep going despite being screamed at for not “properly stacking” a customer’s berries in her bag. I get called “stupid crazy” for telling a grown man to please step back. I deal with customers that make a big fuss about how this is “being blown out of proportion” and how dare I not put their change directly in their hand or touch their filthy reusable bags. 

I do all of that for $10 an hour. 

No hazard pay. 

No sick days. 

No, I shouldn’t feel lucky. I should feel exactly how I feel and that is scared and tired and devastated. 

This is the reality of a low-income essential worker. We are told that society cannot function without us yet we are not paid a living wage. 

Living in a pandemic is not a fun situation for anyone. When you are forced to work customer facing jobs for low wages on top of it all, any little bit of appreciation can help.

We do not decide what to ration. We try our best to keep lines moving so there isn’t a long wait. We sanitize as much as we can with the time that we have and the resources that we were given. 

It’s nice to feel appreciated. It’s nice to feel that someone is seeing me as more than a machine that helps you pay for your groceries. It’s incredibly helpful to know that customers can see we deserve better, and immensely beneficial when they voice that concern. 

If only customers complained about the poor treatment of the employees as much as they complained about long lines.

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