Grocery Store Workers: COVID-19’s Unsung Heroes

Santa Barbara Grocery Store Workers Bring Calm to Anxious Shoppers

Gelson's cashier Roxana Catalan rings up a customer. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

While doctors, nurses, and health-care professionals at large are rightfully being lauded as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s another set of less likely saviors facing the coronavirus frontlines every day: grocery store workers. 

“It used to be an invisible job, just trying to stock the hummus and not get run over by carts,” said Demi Dusenberry, who’s worked at the Trader Joe’s in Goleta for nearly nine years. “Now I’m not invisible. It feels really weird to get thanks for just showing up to work. It’s still the same job. But I’m so glad that I do have a place to work.”

Danna Knutzen is the scan coordinator at Gelson’s, where she’s worked for 31 years (back to when it was an Albertsons). “Most people are really thankful and appreciative, and they are telling us to take care of ourselves,” she said. 

But it’s hard for a veteran like her to be unable to please every customer. “We are so used to having everything they want,” she said. “Needing to say, ‘No, I’m sorry, we’re out,’ continuously for the past couple weeks has been hard.”

Knutzen believes that Gelson’s “turned a corner last week,” and that there is more equilibrium between what/how much people need and the supplies on shelves. But the earlier weeks of the shelter-in-place rules were much more hectic. 

A Gelson’s cashier rings up a customer.

“In the beginning, it was chaotic and overwhelming,” said Gelson’s manager Steve Thomas, who’s worked for the Los Angeles–based chain for 31 years, the last five in Santa Barbara. “We did not have a good handle on what customers were doing. It caught us off-guard.”

In addition to the hoarding of toilet paper and cleaning supplies, there was a run on canned and dried beans and rice. Three weeks in, it’s still hard to keep flour and yeast on the shelves. “They’re all baking their own bread!” supposed Knutzen. 

The same happened at Trader Joe’s. “In the beginning it was pure chaos,” said Dusenberry. “People were just throwing things in baskets, grabbing whatever they could.” 

Limiting customers to about 25 at a time and putting a max on certain items helped. “It improved the overall energy of the store,” said Dusenberry. “People aren’t fighting with each other over rolls of paper towels anymore.” 

Gelson’s was one of the earlier places to impose social distancing rules both inside and outside of the store. They’re also limiting customers to about 30 at a time, sanitizing carts, disinfecting the checkout zones, running half-hour reminders over the speakers, and spacing out the checkout process. Employees are allowed and encouraged to wear protective gear, but it was not mandatory as of press time. 

On March 18, Gelson’s launched a 7-8 a.m. senior citizen shopping hour, but that was a bit crazy. “We had no idea so many people would show up that first morning,” said Thomas. “It was like every senior in Santa Barbara County showed up. It was a madhouse. The next morning, we were ready for them, and it went much smoother.”

Alejandra Ortez loads bags into a cart for a customer at Gelson’s Market in Santa Barbara.

Further tweaks to operating procedures come frequently. “Every day is an adventure,” said Thomas. “We’re getting new directives, and we deal with them.”

Not everything is hunky-dory industry-wide. There’s been grumbling about protective policies from the unions that represent thousands of workers at the bigger chains, such as Ralphs, Albertsons, and Vons. Last week in Los Angeles, the UFCW 770 demanded that employers provide face masks and other measures to keep workers safe. They also started distributing 20,000 masks around Southern California. Employees from those bigger chains are not allowed to speak directly to the media, so the situation in Santa Barbara’s stores could not be ascertained. 

One of the more recognizable crew members at the Trader Joe’s on De la Vina Street is Eric Friedman, the towering Santa Barbara city councilmember. “It’s been very challenging, but I think the crew members have been able to keep their calm,” he said. “It’s a testament to the workers across the grocery store industry. We’re just adapting and trying to make the best of what we’ve got. Once we were able to set limits and people stocked up, it’s coming back to somewhat of a normal supply chain.” 

Though it’s far from normal, Friedman believes that the grocery shopping experience, including the familiar faces of longtime employees, provides a bit of normalcy in these weird times. He also feels that Santa Barbarans in particular are well equipped to deal with yet another crisis. “We’ve been through so many emergency situations in the last decade or so,” he said. “They’re not like this one, but I think that has prepared us very well to remain calm. Most people understand that grocery store workers are trying as hard as we can to provide essential services.”

Perhaps that’s why customers are much more mellow than they were in the beginning, though there are plenty who are still understandably anxious. “I’m more exhausted at the end of the day now just from the emotional stress of taking on other people’s stress,” said Dusenberry. “Everyone is there for each other right now. We’re all going through the same thing.”

But customers can still strive to be better. While people seemed to have mostly stopped shopping with their kids at Gelson’s, Thomas is surprised to see many couples scour the shelves together. That should stop. 

“Our employees are in contact with hundreds of people every day,” said Thomas. “The more people that stay home and just allow one person to shop for the household is better for them and better for us. We don’t have a choice. We’re right in front of everybody.”

He’s proud of his 100-plus employees. “They’ve been troopers,” he said. “They’re trying to keep a smile on their faces. Customers appreciate it. They’re saying, ‘Thank you for being open.’”

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