Grocery store workers heralded as essential employees

Anna Crosswhite

Anna Crosswhite, a cashier at Sprouts Farmers Market, never considered her job to be super important before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, she and her fellow grocery store workers across the country are considered essential employees.

Anna Crosswhite never considered her job to be super important.

A cashier at Sprouts Farmers Market for about a year, Crosswhite saw her part-time job at a grocery store as just another way to pay the bills. Then, on March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“On that day in particular, we got so busy that people were literally circling the parking lot, just waiting for a parking spot so they could come in,” Crosswhite said. “I didn’t even get my breaks or anything. I was just standing at my register for my whole seven hour shift.

“Now, people coming in, there’s just more of a panicked feel from people.”

Crosswhite’s experience mirrors what has been happening at grocery stores across the country. As state and local governments urge people to follow social distancing guidelines and, if possible, work from home, people have been stocking up on necessities such as food, toilet paper and cleaner. This has solidified grocery stores’ place in the United States as essential businesses, making Crosswhite and her fellow grocery store workers essential employees.

“I don’t think, before (the coronavirus), I ever considered myself particularly necessary or super useful,” Crosswhite said. “But, I also never expected this kind of problem to arise. So, I don’t know if I should be thankful that I still have a job, or if I should be really concerned and unlucky feeling given the risk involved with seeing so many people.”

Because of that risk, Crosswhite said there has been a renewed emphasis on cleaning. She said she wipes down and sanitizes her station every chance she gets, and every 20 minutes, a manager will come relieve the cashiers for a few minutes so they can go wash their hands.

To cope with the sudden surge in demand for basics like toilet paper, Sprouts has implemented a rationing system that limits the number of certain products customers can purchase, such as only allowing customers to buy 2 pounds of ground beef or two packages of chicken. Additionally, they have changed their store hours to 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. instead of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to give employees more time to restock and sanitize the store.

These new policies fall in line with what many grocery stores in Stillwater are doing. The Aldi on North Perkins Road also reduced its hours of operation and has temporarily suspended its cash back offering. The Walmart Supercenter on North Perkins Road sanitizes baskets and carts then places them by the greeter stand so people can get clean carts. The Food Pyramid on North Main Street is limiting customers to one of each paper good per person.

Stillwater resident Amy Winters thinks these are good precautions.

“I think it’s a great and realistic method for what they’re dealing with right now,” Winters said. “You could make an argument that it’s still not enough. The cashiers are still handling money and then handling things that you’re buying, so you could argue that it isn’t enough, but at the same time, it’s the most realistic option for them. I think they’re definitely doing what they can.”

Crosswhite agrees with Winters sentiment. She said she thinks Sprouts’ response is appropriate because she doesn’t just want to make sure she doesn’t get sick; she doesn’t want to get her customers or her roommates sick, either.

Winters also said that while the rationing systems made grocery shopping on Saturday slightly more inconvenient, she thinks they’re necessary to stop people from hoarding supplies.

Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce took to Twitter to discuss the shortage of supplies on March 22.

“Stores are getting shipments every day,” Joyce’s tweet said. “The supply chain is fully functional, we just need to settle down and let them catch up.”

Crosswhite said Sprouts is out of the same items many other grocery stores are out of, such as toilet paper, tissues and canned goods, but it replaces these items as often as it can.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 situation has continued to develop. Oklahoma had 565 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, with 15 in Payne County, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. On Sunday, Oklahoma State University confirmed its first case of coronavirus on its Stillwater campus. Saturday, Joyce signed an order for Stillwater residents to shelter in place that will take effect Tuesday.

As the coronavirus situation continues to worsen, Crosswhite said she is more nervous about going to work. Even though she and her roommates are social distancing and trying not to put themselves at risk, Crosswhite knows she is still at risk of contracting COVID-19 every day at work. But even though she’s worried, she doesn’t think she’ll stop any time soon.

“I feel like I can’t really quit Sprouts because I am the type of person that’s best equipped to not get sick and not die from this,” Crosswhite said. “People have to have food. People have to have access to what we have at Sprouts, so I think I’ll continue working there.

“My mom said to me the other day, ‘You just need to think of this as your service to the country.’”