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‘The Stress Is Still There’: Frontline Workers Share Their Frustrations And Joys 11 Months Into COVID-19 Crisis

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Kate Ter Haar
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Flickr
It's one thing to be briefly inside a grocery store, say, once a week during this pandemic. It's a whole different thing to be there day in, day out keeping people fed.

As the pandemic drags on and many people settle further into a more virtual world, others are in their 11th month of continually interacting with members of the public and risking their own health to help keep people supplied with food and other necessities. That includes the many food workers in the St. Louis region represented by UFCW Local 655.

“This is still an extremely stressful situation for my members day in and day out,” the union’s president, David Cook, told St. Louis on the Air. “They continually see thousands of people per day, some of them with attitude about this pandemic we’re living through and not taking the proper precautions.”

And while society collectively seemed to appreciate frontline workers’ plight early on in the pandemic, Cook’s sense is that those positive vibes — and the attention to how society does or doesn’t value some of its most important workers — have died down.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Cook joined host Sarah Fenske for a conversation spotlighting grocery and delivery workers’ experiences, challenges and joys.

Detonia Weaver, a longtime pharmacy technician at a CVS inside a Schnucks store in Jennings, said that despite 20 years of experience in the job, this past year has been “a bit much,” to say the least.

From helping customers who say they have just been released from the hospital after having COVID-19, to the constant disinfecting, to the neverending uncertainty and concerns that come with being exposed to so many people daily, she’s found it all downright scary.

And then there’s the occasional hostile or uncooperative customer who refuses to abide by safety precautions.

“They'll have their mask partially over their nose, and then when they walk up to the plexiglass, we have to ask them, ‘Could you please stand in front of the glass?’ And then they will remove the mask and talk to us,” Weaver explained. “We'll have to ask them, ‘Could you please put your mask back on?’ Like, ‘This is to protect you and me.’”

Cook noted that in a typical grocery store, food workers are seeing “1,000 people every day,” some of them hostile.

“The stress is still there. … And my members are expected to wait on [the bad actors among the general public] like anybody else,” Cook said. “And that's, you know, I just ask society to remember the importance of these individuals to you sustaining your life. Without them, you’re not going to live.”

Weaver was quick to emphasize that she remains a “people person” and enjoys her work. Instacart shopper Nick Kasoff, who lives in Ferguson, has also found joy in his job over the past year.

“I remember a couple months ago I had a shopping trip, and it was 100 cans of soup and a smattering of other things. And I wondered, ‘Who the heck would want all this canned soup?’" Kasoff recalled. “So I get to the delivery, and it was a disabled woman in a wheelchair … who had just come out of several months in the hospital from heart surgery.

“So it was really a great moment — I brought everything into the house … went the extra mile for this woman. That’s somebody who couldn’t have gotten to the grocery store and who would have been in great danger from COVID if she had been exposed to it. So I’m glad as a person who is healthy and able to take the precautions, I was able to help her out.”

A listener in Florissant, Peter, wrote to St. Louis on the Air offering words of appreciation. An older adult with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, Peter said he and his wife have been served by over 40 grocery delivery workers, “and every single one of them has been efficient, pleasant, generous with their time and humble about their efforts.”

“When we thank them for doing this job that puts them at risk, they thank us for using the service. They are the ones taking the chance and doing excellent work in a threatening environment,” Peter wrote. “We believe they, along with so many others out on the front, deserve all the recognition they get and then some.”

In addition to appreciation, Cook said he’d like to see the state of Missouri offer something more concrete to food workers: higher priority for COVID-19 vaccines.

“If you go across the river to Illinois, those grocery workers over there are going to be some of the first in Group 1B to be vaccinated, because the governor recognizes how important they are to sustain the community and the society we live in,” the union president said.

“Our governor here [in Missouri] is taking a different path. … And our governor does not, and our health department director does not, deem the grocery workers to deserve or need to be in the top 1B. I just wonder what happens if groceries store workers have a bad outbreak and they don't show up.”

The conversation included a call from a local postal worker named Kevin, who noted that he and his coworkers are “trying to do our job, and we have to do it six days, seven days a week, and bring these things to your home.”

“A lot of it is needed supplies, and it's medicine and food and cleaning supplies, things that people need in their homes, but please be patient and respectful to [your] carriers when they bring in the stuff to [your] houses,” Kevin said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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