Through the Eyes of a Trader Joe's Employee
We are just over a month, ok... we are well over a month into this full-fledged quarantine. Some of us are past the panic and chaotic energy of projects and filling time and being productive and stay busy. Some of us are just starting to feel inspired to start any projects at all. Some of us are losing that inspiration. And some of us have it one minute and lose it the next. We, as a world, are in a constantly fluctuating head and body space trying to navigate our minds, hopes, grief, intentions, use of our time space and energy. Some may have found a better grasp of what they need than others, but the biggest thing to remember is that everyone's needs are different. Someone so eloquently wrote, "we are not all in the same boat... we are all weathering the same storm." And that really does hit the nail on the head. So I ask that especially in these times, try to refrain from judgement of each other (now some of the things happening in the world in ignorance are just too much not to I'll be honest) but most importantly right now, don't judge yourself (Ha, easy to say on the second half of that, I'm a hypocrite but I'm working on it.) instead be kind. I am judgmental and hard on myself. Anyone who knows me well, knows lacking productivity, forward movement and feeling uninspired is very hard for me to forgive myself for. But it's one thing I've spent time meditating on, writing about, and just sitting with. Shockingly enough, I think I'm beginning to find some version of balance within myself and not giving 2000% away. That is not to say I'm cool with it, but I'm becoming much more accepting of my own limitations, healthy boundaries, and patience with myself and others. Some days are better than others.
I've been working full time at Trader Joe's here in Manhattan and man has it been a lot to process. An adventure to say the least. Let me start with this, while I may be exhausted, I'm blessed to have work. I am filled with gratitude that I have an income that I can get by on. I leave my house five days a week to go, get on the subway and go to work and I recognize that I am lucky to get that change of scenery. And I know for me, that is why I'm not feeling the intensity of the cabin fever many people are right now. I have work, an income. And for me, one of the best things about it, is feeling like I'm doing something to help in this time of crisis. While I'm not saving lives, I'm offering my services as an essential worker to the community.
At times, I feel immense guilt for ever saying I'm exhausted, drained, or emotionally spent because I'm not working 12 hour shifts trying to save the world while being strong for people while watching them suffer. I'm not in a hospital by myself, in pain, totally isolated from everyone because I'm ill. I'm not on calls all day as social workers finding care for displaced children and families, or domestic abuse responder trying to save lives in that respect or thankfully I'm not in a position where I need their help. I'm not the "bad guy" giving tickets/fines for not adhering to social distance laws who are doing their job to keep you safe.
So let me start by saying, thank you so much to the doctors, nurses, medical staff
(administrative, active caregiving etc) to all those in some medical profession who has had to shift their lives to become emergency personnel in a whole new much riskier capacity than their original career. To all the EMTs, firemen who are on call in every way they can be. To the police, thank you for stepping up for your city (wherever you may be). For enforcing really hard calls and dealing with emotional touchy subjects... which to the general public feels like taking away of their freedom, I have the utmost respect for you putting yourselves at risk but also being so strong in dealing with people in all capacities. To all the essential workers - Thank you doesn't really begin to cover it. To our sanitation workers, our cleaning crews, our garbage companies and all those on call to pick up after us, thank you for doing the job no one else wants to do. Thank you for braving the conditions to put others before yourself. When I'm not at work or getting in my quick run/daily dose of exercise, I stay home for you. (Yes and those I love) but mostly because if I don't, I'm not helping you.
PSA: IF YOU WEAR GLOVES, any kind, for any protective purposes or not, for the LOVE of your own F***** life... THROW THEM IN A TRASH CAN, not the streets, not the side walk, no not even next to the the trash can, IN IT. I cannot tell you how infuriating it is when I leave work to see PILES of gloves mere feet or inches from trash cans. I cannot promise the safety of someone who does this and I see it. THERE ARE TRASH CANS ALL OVER THE DAMN CITY, literally two feet from where you deemed it acceptable to just drop your trash (that BTW is potentially hazardous and life threatening to other people because it is considered a BIOHAZARD right now). Do not throw them wherever you please. This isn't your bedroom, your personal space to do with what you please. It should not be seen as someone else's job to pick up after your selfish, lazy ass. It is YOUR responsibility. So just DO BETTER. You want this virus to go away, you want the Earth stop burning, you want the Earth to not implode, starve, suffocate, or better yet you want this precious Earth that you expect to owe you ANYTHING have anything to offer... DO YOU DAMN PART. Pick up your fucking trash. I'm no saint and won't claim to be, but so help me God, the fact that this even has to be said makes me feel like I'm losing my mind. If you are in a city or suburb without trash cans on the city blocks or you don't know if you will have access to one... bring your own version of a trash bag, poop bag, ziplock, or whatever you can to safely contain those contaminated gloves that you are carelessly tossing to the ground. You think that's too gross or that you are above that, then don't wear them and wash your hands more frequently than you are. Geez oh flip...
I digress, back to the topic I came to write about,
In the midst of thanking all the essential workers out there and recognizing how hard things are and the sacrifices they are making, I have to recognize not just for myself but for my coworkers, working in a grocery store, albeit not a hospital, it is not an easy job to have right now. At times, I don't feel equipped to be "the therapist" people see us as, or treat us as, at the register. I love being someone to talk to, heck for some customers, I'm one of the only people they have spoken to in person since their last grocery run or "the only thing that has made them laugh in over a week". It's an honor and something I consider to be a blessing and gift. I love being the positive sunshine person for our customers, letting the time in the store and at register to be whatever they need it to be, a vent session, a chance to break down, a chance to interact with humans, a space to escape the world outside. In many ways, Trader Joe's has become a haven for so many people. One, I admit, I felt the same way about in the beginning, but now I can't say the same. Access to grocery stores, essential businesses is being taken advantage of for leisure. I see the same people everyday because they are using it as their chance to go out... please, stock up for the week and don't come back until you need to. As much as we love being the safe haven escape for you, you are putting yourself and others at risk by treating this like your new daily activity and escape from your apartment. Not to mention, putting our lives and those we love at risk too.
People back home and afar keep asking what it's like in NYC? How is working at Trader Joe's? Are you allowed to wear masks yet? Have you gotten it yet? Has anyone at your store? And frankly, I'm overwhelmed by these questions now. The energy of the world, of our city is heavy. You feel it the minute you go outside. The customers demeanor has shifted past gratitude. Burn out is fading in and out by the way we are treated, by the expectations and lack of consideration, and is becoming a pretty thankless job at times. Now that isn't everyone and that isn't everyday, I've had some really memorable and great moments throughout this, but I'd be lying to say even that kindness is beginning to fade with peoples impatience and discomfort.
Trader Joes In New York DURING CoVID:
I'll say this, at first it was insanely busy, people were hoarding, going nuts, and selfishly taking the masses for themselves. It was disheartening. We were busy as all get out. We had to put restrictions on how much people could buy because our freezer section was empty before 2pm. At one point, I felt like a teacher/lifeguard, having to enforce NO RUNNING. I mean people were actually running with their carts when we first opened to be able to get ahead and get their fill. One day I had someone who admitted to living alone trying to buy 8 ground beef, 4 ground turkeys, and some chicken, don't remember how many. And when I realized everyone around at other registers had done similarly, maybe not to quite as much excess, it was then that we quickly limited purchases especially meat, diary/eggs and shelf stable items or we'd never make it through the day with enough product to sell. One woman made a comment about how she'd need to fill her tub with ice because their TWO freezers were stock full. And all I could think was, "Damn my coworkers who start at the noon shift, don't even get groceries because of people like you."
There wasn't really time to take a break, to slow down or to think about anything but be pleasant and get this line down as fast as we can. It was great for business at first but these actions were happening weeks before the quarantine, before stricter rules were in place, before the threat was really being acknowledged here in the US. This was before NY was dubbed the epicenter. When a woman, before the first case in the United States was confirmed, told me if I didn't start stocking up everyday, that I'd die when they closed the city... I didn't even know how to respond. I tried to keep a straight face, this was before things got crazy but I just looked at this woman and pitied her. How hard must it be to live with such debilitating fear? My heart goes out for all people who are suffering in that way right now because there is fear in everyone, but those who suffer from anxiety surrounding health or sickness, or crowds must feel the intensified gravity. And honestly, I'm not sure I understood the gravity of the flood that coming. But it didn't take long.
When the shelter in place order started, crew member's starting calling out. Employees were struggling to show up for a number of reasons - we had at that point had a large portion of our staff call out, take leave, or quit - need for child care, feeling ill or symptomatic, being high risk themselves, care taking for high risk people, and one we are feeling everyday and keep asking ourselves is if the risk was worth it, etc.
But each day, new systems were being put into place to protect us and our customers. I won't say this has been flawless in response to taking care of employees but considering the nature of the daily changes, updates, rules and such, they are doing their best in giving what
they can guarantee us when it comes to care, sick leave, and understanding/flexibility. Sometimes the risk doesn't feel worth it but then the next day more ideas or rules or changes are put in place to support staff and make us feel that the company has our backs, and while money has been a hot topic, in every other way, Trader Joe's really has been incredible in trying to make us feel supported, safe, informed, and ready. It is ever evolving with the constantly changing information. If we have beef or concerns, they get taken to the top from our captain. It may not come back the way we wanted, but we do, well I guess I should say, I personally do feel heard but I certainly won't speak for everyone. The masks issue caused a little chaos when it became a requirement as most of us didn't own masks when the rule was put in place.
We started lower the numbers to 50 in the store, then 40, at the lowest we average 20 or 25 customers in our store at a time. We have at least one person cleaning every hour, one person going around
asking customers to maintain social distancing. We have had plexiglass shields installed at all the registers and we are now required to wear masks as of this past week. We are no longer touching customers personal belongings and encouraging them to let us bag in paper bags to move the line through as fast as we can, but we, for now, honor you trying to do your part and use yours own bag. We are only using every other register to protect customers and staff to maintain social distancing as best we can. We have tape marking the floor for the lines as well as distance from the register until they pay. We have one employee at the door with hand sanitizer greeting people, one employee outside inviting seniors in and ensuring customers maintain social distancing even outside. We have 11 of our 22 registers open. Our staff is sanitizing our own hands between every customer and wiping down our surfaces regularly. We are trying to maintain the Trader Joe's welcome while also trying to efficiently get people in and out of the store as fast as possible. We have cleaning crews come in addition to the work we do each hour over the weekend for a deep clean. We are taking as many measures as we can to take care of our customers and employees.
While going through the constant changes administratively, rule enforcement wise and with constantly new information being released to the masses, we went through this really reassuring phase of understanding from our community. Customers understood the gravity of the situation. They were listening, they were patient and kind. They didn't feel attacked or singled out, they felt protected.
I could tell, it was real and being taken seriously, people were more gracious, understanding. They even recognized the sacrifice we were making. They were calm, all things considering, patient, and filled with gratitude. People were thanking us for staying open. Thanking us for showing up to work. People recognized we were putting ourselves at risk to fulfill this service to our city. It felt nice for people to have stepped past panic and into this new perspective and not just for what sounds like praise but because the store ran smoother, my days went faster and while the exhaustion didn't fade, the energy in the store felt less ominous or frantic. And honestly, I felt seen. It was at this point, we did have more people calling out sick, stores were closing from confirmed cases, etc. There was one morning during this stage of graciousness where there were four of us who showed up for work. For the first 3 hours. 4 - 7am only five of us were unloading pallets, loading shelves, prepping the store. By opening at 8am, we had a total of 9 crew members and three mates to run the store. There was a point that day where I was the only person on register. We had 80% of our workforce call out that morning, it did get better as the hours passed and more staff shifts began but it was wild.
That morning, we didn't have time to panic, we just got to work and we got it done. It wasn't the fullest the store has ever been nor was it the most organized, but we opened on time and were ready to serve our community. And once they saw how few of us there were, customers kept any complaints or negativity that may have crossed their mind to themselves that day. We felt that and were relieved. Even those days though, were emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting. It used to be easy to be positive and go with the flow when with customers but we are tired. For the last month, when I get home, it was a battle with myself to do anything other than want to sleep and be left alone. I was told I sounded bitter and angry, and it was not so much bitterness, just burnt out. When I was told I needed balance, I didn't have the energy to even say, "f* off, this is my balance." I've been bright for the world, I'm going to feel the feelings I've put aside all day. And sometimes that would just manifest in my conversations being short or not happening at all. I couldn't articulate well what I was experiencing in the moment. And frankly had zero interest in doing so, except to my Mommy, who listened to my venting like a champ. (Thank you Mommy, I love you). And for the most part, aside from a few people in my life, it's just easier to respond, "I'm trucking along." than say all the things I was feeling. Knowing full well, every person in the world is going through their own rollercoaster experience during this global pandemic.
As my therapist and I talked about it two Thursdays ago, I was expressing my frustration that I wasn't up for giving any movement or yoga classes, for teaching, for giving more. I felt guilt. And she stopped me to remind me, my job right now IS giving. It IS what I'm offering during this time. I'm not at home 24/7, isolated, antsy. That is their contribution if and only if they so feel they want to or decide to. It doesn't make me a lesser artist, contributor, teacher, positive person for leaving it all at work and shutting down however feels right when I'm off the clock. She had to reassure me that I was in fact giving, and in my subconscious I knew that but I still struggle to let go of how I'd like to give more. But more specifically give more in my art form and passion for teaching dance and yoga. But when I get home, I'm spent. And as I write this, I still feel guilt because I know there are those in our community other essential workers working 12 hours and watching and tirelessly trying to help people in their suffering, unable to save everyone, and do it on repeat. My heart aches for them and then feels petty to say I'm feeling tired. But I have to honor (and be reminded by Tasha) that I may not be trained in any capacity to do what they do but I am still giving within my means and my job. She also reminded me that no matter if we are home, at TJ's or working a hospital, we all are allowed to FEEL; feel all the emotions or lack there of.
Over the last two and a half weeks, we've stepped passed that phase into a new phase, people are angry, antsy, tired and this stage of grief has led grocery store clerks to be some what punching bags for customers emotions. Whether it just be loneliness, or worry for a loved one who is sick, or about losing their job and worrying about getting food on the table, or to being upset TJ's doesn't carry yeast... people have hit that breaking point. Obviously not all, many people are still expressing thanks, but more and more anger and unkindness is arising with CoVID-19's inconvenience to our lives. Two weekends ago, I was cursed out by two separate customers in less than an hour. One went on about how "all stores are taking advantage of peoples needs (?) and basically stealing from them (?). How we are not doing our part in protecting our customers, because we didn't become a human shield for not stepping between people more to be the barrier. (Which I remind everyone, only compounds the issue). She went on and on, "F* you, I hate you. I hate the world. I hate people. Do better." F** this and F** that. It was a really jarring experience, too numb to cry or say anything back, I just stood there and took it. And what I was left with was this overwhelming sadness being told I'm the problem or I'm not doing enough when I feel like I'm giving all I have, including the risk of my own health. Customers becoming anxious about things like: Do you wash the dry produce before it goes on the shelves? Are they even safe to eat? How much are you ripping us off because of the supply and demand?? Or the more polite version, how much have prices gone up? (Which for anyone wondering the same things, our prices have not changed. We are not ripping you off. I promise. Any price changes that take place within the Trader Joe's brand happen company wide and not even things like TP have changed in price)
But on top of customers being on edge, employees are in that headspace too. We are feeling everything you are feeling at home too. Some coworkers testing positive leaving the rest of us on high alert to our bodies and the potential of getting it ourselves. All feeling the emotions of our customers, the stress on our bodies, keeping up with the constant changes and being flexible and willing to even show up. Being patient with the employees calling out, leaving early, new rules being implemented and then changed the next day. Worrying about our own loved ones near and far. Many of us losing our sense of direction because of what our lives entail outside of working at Trader Joes as well as inside. Many, like me, do this job so they can pursue their passions: arts, education, dance modeling music etc. And most of us are just beginning to take the time, or are beginning to reflect and process and feel the gravity of our own emotions, setbacks, and struggles.
I know for myself, at first knowing the dance and arts world would rally, I just powered through my work days and just tried to adjust to the new normal. I started with good intentions for productivity. Grossly underestimating the weight and toll CoVID would have on work and people's minds and hearts. Also not knowing how bad it would get, I didn't really bother taking the time to mourn that dance was on pause for the unforeseeable future. The whole reason I moved to this city, left my family in MD for, didn't exist right now, I didn't have access and every day a new dance company, studio, show was on the brink of bankruptcy, closing, or laying off workers. I just pushed through. I know for a lot of people, the length of which this virus would reside here was seriously underestimated, I was one of them. That mindset didn't last long though, especially here in NYC. Reality dropped like a bomb. I didn't really even take time to grieve dance being put on hold and all things around me crumbling, and now, I'm trying to both grieve and be this safe place for all people. I went into survival work mode. Autopilot. I feel I'm finally coming out of that as I'm reintroducing things into my daily.
I started journaling again. I started (many days late) Suleika Jaouad's "The Isolation Journals" and it has been such an eye opening and revealing space. I used to journal all the time and just... lost it over the years, dropping it almost entirely in college. But these journals, I'm writing for me, not for this blog or for you to see. But also in these journals, I'm finding some inner peace. An outlet that feels productive. I wouldn't say I have more to offer or that I'm DOING so much more, that #quarantoning or fit as a fiddle or crushing goals and projects. But I am allowing myself to rest and shut down. I'm learning to let go of guilt and the pressure to please (HA, ok LEARNING was the key part of that...) I have to start somewhere. I'm trying to just be present with my own head and heart. Yesterday was the first ballet class I took in over two months and woah buddy FLOOD gates open. I didn't realize how much I hadn't acknowledged my own grief. How much I miss dancing. How dance has been a safe house of emotion for me since I can remember and doing ballet brought a flood of emotions. But I know working at Trader Joe's will allow me, when the world cautiously opens back up and I can get my tush into a studio, I'll be able to afford it. I'll be able to dance and cry and move and be free.
I'm not writing this for your pity. But I am hoping to maybe open your eyes. Especially at Trader Joe's, we want everyone to feel safe. Heard. Welcome and able to get what they need. But also, come with a list, be quick and get in and get out. We love you and can't wait for our register chats to return and the air feel less cold and sterile. But PLEASE, be kind, be patient and remember, we too, are in this with you. We want you safe. We want to be safe. Safe at home. Social distance. Wash your hands. Don't touch your face. Throw your gloves IN THE TRASH. Support one another and remember HUMANITY conquers, PATIENCE, FORGIVENESS, and LOVE conquer all. Let us do it for those who are tirelessly in hospitals and make-shift hospitals to give them a fighting chance, and we starts with simply doing our part, staying home. By senselessly going out, we undo everything they are working towards. I know it's hard. I know it is. I promise I know it is. But I'm begging you please do your part, and I will continue to do mine. After all, everyone wants this to go back to "normal" and in a perfect world, no more people die and all those in hospitals too can go back home, because they certainly have to miss being there too.
We may not be in the same boat, some on paddleboards, others on yachts, some sailings throwing boats with the wind. But we are all facing a gnarly storm, please, please, be kind. Sending lots of love to everyone with all the hardships Coronavirus has brought to you and your home and community.
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