Current Affairs Health and Wellbeing Lifestyle

Shelf life: the story of a pandemic supermarket worker

It’s 6.50am. The tannoy pings, helpfully reminding me that I’ve been here in the supermarket for five hours. ‘I’m opening the doors in a few minutes,’ the disembodied voice announces, ‘just wanted to say; keep smiling and have a good day!’. The long-term staff smile – she’s a friend, been here for years. And then they get back to work; this is a familiar routine.

I’m agency staff – working the night shift picking deliveries. I’m not the only new face; there are several temporary staff around, clearly different to the permanent staff as we are in all black, rather than the supermarket uniform. We aren’t the only new measure during the COVID-19 crisis, but we are probably the most substantive; unlike the bars and restaurants where I usually pick up odd shifts, the supermarket relies typically on its own pool of staff. But the number of deliveries and click and collect orders skyrocketed, and so the supermarket is, for now, dependent on agency staff to pick up the slack.

The main differences, permanent staff tell me, are fairly small. A one-way system has been introduced in the staff area, to varying degrees of success – the agency staff follow it to the letter, but ingrained habits are hard to break. Managers struggle to enforce rules that they themselves are struggling to follow – during my break I watch one supervisor walk the wrong way out of the office at least three times. Every order is to be bagged – this uses a tremendous amount of plastic, but is required so that delivery van drivers can drop off the groceries without physical contact.

Despite the signs and posters everywhere, the two-metre social distancing guideline is impossible. There are upwards of 40 people on the night shift, and with relatively strict time requirements and a large number of orders to fill, it simply doesn’t happen. This changes conspicuously when customers come in at 7am – the first hour is for NHS staff and the vulnerable, and they are more cautious than the majority of the shopworkers. But this slows the picking and restocking down immeasurably, which is why most of the work takes place overnight.

The cleaners are contract cleaners. First they sweep the floors – there is usually cardboard and plastic from the restocking that starts as soon as the doors close. Then they mop the floor and spray surfaces with disinfectant. Finally, they have a floor cleaning machine, which looks like a little tractor. It is because of this machine that if the pickers are listening to music, they are only allowed one headphone in – otherwise you are quite likely to get run over. The cleaning routine hasn’t been that drastically altered, which might come as a surprise, until you think about how supermarkets typically keep high standards, in line with food safety regulations.

The picking isn’t exactly intellectually taxing work, but I leave every morning with sore shoulders and an aching neck. It’s not glamorous, but it’s vastly reducing the number of people coming into the store and it’s providing food and supplies to vulnerable people who can’t leave the house. The permanent staff aren’t buoyed by the kind of support that the NHS workers are getting, but their work is just as vital. They’re, for the most part, trying to adapt and do their jobs.

But for some the added pressure of the virus has been too much. One worker talks about customers deliberately coming close to her, in order to intimidate her. She has switched to night shifts in order to avoid the pushy members of the public, only to find the disrupted sleep patterns and the anxiety of catching the virus too much. Others talk of cancelled holidays – one a trip of a lifetime to Florida that had been in the works for over a year – and being unable to take leave because the demand for labour was so high. The new rules have also caused tension between the pickers and the workers who restock the shelves – when someone is restocking in an aisle, carts should not be taken down the aisle – which makes the pickers’ job much harder.

The other agency staff are also stressed and worried – several have taken agency jobs in order to replace their usual full-time roles. It’s a difficult time to be looking for work, and if you haven’t been with an agency for very long, they are unlikely to put you forward for shifts. Moving between workplaces with different virus regulations is difficult and confusing, as is negotiating different cultures and managers.

The impact of the crisis is a very mixed bag. Mainly, the permanent staff just want to get their heads down and do their jobs. Agency staff want to figure out what’s going on and then help as much as possible. The changes that have been made seem minimal, and I worry that if a picker had the virus, they might spread it to hundreds of households in a single night.

On the evening of my penultimate shift, the government announces that shopworkers are now eligible for testing. Most of the staff will not be tested, but it does seem like a policy that might prevent hundreds of infections. The permanent workers, although not made more optimistic, do seem relieved. Everyone’s in a slightly improved mood.

As I sign out a supervisor comments: ‘At least it’s raining today. You’re not missing another good day.’