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19 March 2020

How supermarket workers are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus panic

As shelves fall empty through frenetic stockpiling, blameless employees are left trying to appease irate customers. 

By George Grylls

In front of the bread section of one Co-op supermarket in east Kent, there is a sign: “To make sure there’s enough to go around, we’re limiting this item to 1 per person.”

Look closer, and you realise that the sign has been edited. A shop-worker has handwritten the number “1” in felt-tip pen to cover an earlier, more generous figure. Yet still, over the course of 30 minutes, and despite the frenetic stocking of staff, the bread, the milk and the tinned tomatoes all disappear from the supermarket’s shelves and into peoples’ trolleys.

“I put some boxes of eggs out ten minutes ago,” says one worker, as he replenishes the depleted cheese fridge. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re out already.”

Across the country, and despite the assurances of politicians and retailers alike, stores have continued to empty as panicked people go on stockpiling. In response, the home delivery firm Ocado has been forced to close, supermarkets have begun reserving times for elderly and disabled people to shop, and almost all retailers are placing quotas on essential items. 

“The British public needs to calm a bit,” says Paddy Lillis, head of the trade union USDAW, which represents over 433,000 shop-workers. “The retailers have said over and over that there’s enough in the supply chain. Their warehouses are well stocked. If people just shop normally there should be no necessity for any panic. The problem is people are not listening. It continues apace.”

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Such widespread, illogical behaviour has impacted most heavily on the least culpable — the supermarket workers, who find themselves trying to explain the shortages to irate customers.

“It is putting massive pressure on the staff,” says Lillis. “There’s been a peak in abuse. It’s not our members’ fault that the shelves are empty sometimes.”

 

In east Kent at least, any backchat is quickly shut down by the steely, no-nonsense approach of one experienced till-worker, whose register flashes up if a customer buys too many of any rationed item. She then calls over an assistant who puts it back on the shelf.

“That’s how it should be,” she says, embodying the Co-op’s 176-year old community ethics. “I just smile at people and don’t really take any notice if they say anything.”

All the Co-op’s workers in east Kent were wearing rubber gloves. A spokesperson for the company was keen to stress the provision of hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes, saying: “The safety and wellbeing of our colleagues is our priority and we are immensely proud of our frontline colleagues and the work they are doing at this unprecedented time to serve our customers, members and local communities.”

But the nature of the sector means that there could well be problems ahead. Like the cleaners and the carers, the shopworkers are part of a vanguard of insecurely employed people, on whom the whole country is now relying to see us through the pandemic.

(See also: How the UK’s cleaners are being left to fight coronavirus alone)

“In retail in particular you’ve got a lot of part-time, low-hours employees,” says Lillis. “The vast majority of retail workers – 75 per cent plus – are part time, but that can range from four hours a week to 25.”

In order to qualify for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) of £94.25 per week, workers have to earn a minimum of £118 per week. As the law currently stands, many shop-workers will fall through the safety net. And given that supermarkets are one of the few places that could be left open in the coming weeks, it is fair to assume that the people working there will be at higher risk of developing Coronavirus than the average population.

“If they are not entitled to SSP, then there needs to be a moral argument,” says Lillis. “These are employees of companies –  some of them long-serving — and the companies have an obligation to support them. But equally the government also has an obligation. These are people who are facing the public, probably getting exposed to this virus, and yet they are coming in to work to ensure the public and the community get a service.”

With schools closing on Friday, Lillis fears that it will be mostly women who will be out of pocket as parents are forced to take time off to look after children. This evening, the government is due to announce a list of “key workers” whose children will still be allowed to attend school despite the shutdown, and Lillis has written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to argue for shopworkers to be included (some initial reports have suggested delivery drivers will be, but stockists and till-workers will not).

Down the road from the Co-op supermarket in east Kent is a local Spar. Here too, in front of the bakery, there is a sign limiting people to a maximum of two loaves of bread. As the last few are taken from the shelves, one wonders how long before this sign too is edited down to “1”. 

“Retail is keeping the country going,” says Lillis, of the role his members are playing in fighting the pandemic. “Retail is keeping the country fed.”