Letter from a Front Line

We have our first guest contributor! This essay came to my attention this morning. It’s written by a young woman I know. I will say more about her at the end, but I will let her words speak. I hope you enjoy.

Being an Essential Worker  by Shirley N.

A job that never seemed important. That is how a cashier sometimes is seen. Like many other jobs, being a cashier does not require going to school to get a certificate, a degree, or an advanced degree. It is just simple, but overall it is essential and important. Unfortunately, it is not seen in this way all the time or by everyone. I have been working as a supermarket cashier for about two and a half years, and it is not a simple job as many would say. We have to be careful with customer’s groceries, be patient, be polite, and sometimes pretend not to feel the offenses of people. For example, one day a lady went to check out her groceries with one of my co-workers. My co-worker is in her 40s. She does not speak English well. The lady noticed that, and she started telling the cashier that she should not be working there because she does not even understand and speak English. The cashier seemed very sad, and another lady behind her started calling the manager really loud because she said that the lady was abusing the cashier. This is an everyday occurrence at a supermarket. Sometimes people just want to make us feel down because we are “supermarket cashiers.” When the pandemic (COVID-19) started, we were not simple cashiers, we started being essential workers.

When schools, restaurants, bars, and malls closed, pharmacies, hospitals, and supermarkets remained open. My health, my goals, and my life were in danger. During this time, working to serve people who do not appreciate our work did not make sense. That is how I was feeling. The week my school closed, I worked four days up to the weekend and during my spring break week. That week and a half was something I will never forget. The first day, March 4, the supermarket was incredibly crowded; it took just a day to have empty shelves and people fighting each other because of food. Everything was unreal for me. Before the pandemic, people used to complain about every single thing. They always want to have things at the cheapest price and they bought in less quantity — but not this time. They tried to get as much food as possible. They did not care about the price anymore. It felt like the end of the world. After that Wednesday of work, the only thing I wanted to do was sleep and be ready for the next day because I knew it could be worse.

The next day, March 5th, other schools, and businesses were closing. People were losing their jobs and scarcity of supplies began to happen. That day is unforgettable for me because I was not scared about the virus and everything that was going on. However, it is sad how everything can just disappear. I remember a few months before looking for a job at a bookstore in the mall because I wanted to work somewhere a little slower than a supermarket, but for some reason I did not get the job. That day, I felt grateful that I didn’t, because even though I was in danger, I had work. I would still be able to help my family in Ecuador, and that made me feel blessed. I thanked God once again for what I had.

The next day of work was also hard for me. I have to deal with a lot of people, and in my mind, there was always the question: might he or she have the virus? My co-workers seemed scared. I heard them talking to each other about what they heard in the news, what people were saying, etc. For a few, it is something that they would have to face and only God knows what would happen to them.  For me, I thought this experience was something that will make us become better people. However, this did not seem to be on everybody’s mind. For those customers who think we “the cashiers” are useless people, putting my life in danger and giving them service did not seem worthwhile. For instance, there was a guy who came to my register with a bad attitude. For some reason, he pushed one of the items of the customer in front of him and brought it closer to her. The lady did not like him touching her stuff and getting too close to her.  I told him very politely to stand where the sign indicated where the 6 feet distance was. He just looked at me and muttered to himself. When it was his turn to be checked out, he started yelling at me to put an item in a bag. I knew that was my job, but certainly, he was trying to give me a hard time. I called the manager because as I said I am a supermarket cashier, but I am not less than anyone. He also treated the manager really badly. Other customers were calling him nasty.

This kind of situation is something that I am used to facing. Being a supermarket cashier for these years has taught me customer service skills when dealing with this kind of person in a real-life situation that most of us have faced or will face. Another thing I will take from it is to not be this type of person because every single job position needs to be respected and valued. Also, advocating for myself is another thing I have learned. Even though I am young, I am able to defend my rights and not let anyone drive over me. This is one of the things that people like me have to know in order not to be put down as many people would like to do to others. Sometimes, it is not something I wish I have to do, but in real life, it is what we must face. 

In my everyday work, now there was something different. First, we started using gloves. I did not like the idea because we did not have hand sanitizers to disinfect the gloves. Second, we were obliged to wear masks. Then a second mask, the kind that is clear plastic and covers the entire face, was offered but not compulsory, yet it was an extra safety precaution for us. After the masks, they put up plastic partitions so we would not have direct contact with customers. It stood like that for a while. What did not stay the same was the freedom of buying whatever people wanted and the amount they wanted. Since the shelves were emptying and deliveries were delayed, the store had to make decisions about how they would be able to address people’s needs. Therefore, the limit on chicken, beef, rice, frozen vegetables and fruits, paper towels and bath tissue, etc. was one of those decisions. Again, this was something that made people go crazy. Every day, work is an argument with customers about the limits on food. On sunny days, people come to the store and try to get a lot of packages of meat to do BBQ. It is sad, but it seems that people still do not get what is going on.

After work, it feels like I survived another day, but at the same time, nothing is the same. I feel scared of wearing the same pair of jeans twice, my shoes can not be inside of the house without disinfecting them. Life is not the same, out there many families have lost their loved ones, and even though we are all facing a different situation related to COVID-19, it is not easy to assimilate it. At the supermarket, I continue to experience all kinds of situations. For example, a few people try to relax with a case of beer, others try to get a lot of meat to have for weeks, others buy only what they need, and others’ jobs are to shop for others. This is a really interesting time to me.

I have been experiencing a lot, and I can not stop thinking about how incredible life is. Becoming a doctor requires a lot of studying and many years of interning and residency. Other people make videos and become famous social media influencers and society sees them as important. The reality is different. I am out there making it every day providing an essential service. I never thought I would be in this position carrying this craziness on my back.

After three weeks, the supermarket provided additional protection. Now, we have a plastic curtain that protects our backs. I feel that nothing really would completely protect us, but it is worthwhile to try everything that might help. Staying motivated is also another thing I have been facing because it is sad how the world has changed, but many people’s minds have not.  For example, supermarkets went back to using plastic grocery bags so that we do not have to touch people’s bags that they bring from home. However, it is really sad how people are taking advantage of it. They try to take as many bags as they can home. I still do not see the point of this. This is not always the case. There are also people who have tried to thank us for our outstanding work. They have been making signs to make us feel how important we are to them and to the world. I am pretty sure that there are more people who thank essential workers than people who think we are just being paid to do a job, and that our work also includes hearing their insults

Overall, being part of the essential workforce is a role that today is one of the most important. My everyday job is to serve people while exposing my health and my family’s health. Not only that, but my goals, dreams, and feelings are out there with me. I am able to support myself, be a full-time student, manage two jobs, send money to my family in Ecuador, be a daughter, a sister, cook, and wash my clothes every day after work. Throughout this time I have noticed how being essential requires strength, courage, and patience. It is now about two months and a half since people’s everyday lives have changed. Being outside is not joyful anymore. Every day something different and unexpected happens. My job may not be considered important to many because we are still seen as simple supermarket cashiers even though we are the ones who help to keep this world moving forward. For others, we make the difference and that motivates me to continue.

Shirley is 20 years old. She loves mathematics, environmental science and Albert Einstein. She hopes to attend Princeton University where her idol taught. I, for one, applaud her every step of the way.

Clare

Images: WPA and Diego Rivera

5 thoughts on “Letter from a Front Line

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