Tales From the Workers Who Keep the Nation Running Through Coronavirus

The shutdowns of non-essential work through the country has highlighted how the country depends on a network of people who are ensuring that customers can continue to access the nation’s food supply and that remaining businesses remain running.

Store clerk wearing a mask checks out customers at a grocery store.
Store clerk wearing a mask checks out customers at a grocery store. (photo: Shutterstock)

“I want cage-free lettuce.”

Nelson Gil, who works at a high-end grocery store in Beverly Hills, California, told the Register he had never heard of such a request. But the woman was quite earnest.

“You mean organic lettuce?” he replied. “Cage-free eggs?”

“No. Cage-free lettuce.” The woman was adamant. She would take no head of lettuce that was not explicitly labeled “cage-free.”

The grocery store workers consulted with the manager, and found no solution to the woman’s problem. Lettuce does not grow in cages. Gil was tasked to bear the bad tidings.

“I’m sorry. We don’t have that here,” he said.

Gil’s story is only one of many to be told during this time of COVID-19 — as many essential workers remain at their jobs, despite the risks, to help support the rest of the country as it waits out the threat.


Panic in the Aisles

When the state of California’s lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic started, people wanted to buy up everything at the high-end grocery store.

As an illustration of the harrowing and the humor of the situation, one regular customer came in and said she wanted all the cucumbers the store could provide and threatened to lawyer up if they didn’t come through with her request.

“That’s 200 cases — on crates,” he explained. The store also imposed a $100 delivery fee — in vain — to discourage such purchases.

“Okay … I’ll take them all I guess,” the customer said. Gil said he consulted the store’s managers. They informed the woman they had to consider their other customers’ needs, and she couldn’t buy all 200 crates of cucumbers.

“She then threatened to sue the store,” Gil said. After further negotiation by both parties, a compromise was reached.

“She finally agreed to take only 100 cases,” he said.

Grocery store workers keep each other supported and share the funny stories that happen to relieve the stress from the serious risks they run as essential workers. They and other workers form an essential link of people who are the country’s lifelines amid the pandemic.

Gil said for grocery store workers, and particularly for those who are migrants, “the fear of not being able to bring food to the table was more dominant than catching” the virus.

Before the state imposed its regulations, grocery stores had their own Wild-West approach to the crisis. The first day, the manager just said they needed to practice social distancing, but did not need to wear masks. The second day, the manager came in with a face shield. The third day, they started distributing masks, gloves and sanitizer to all employees.

The protections kept getting stronger for grocery workers from there. Then the store limited its customers from 20 to 15, and then finally to 10 people inside the store at a time.

“Now they’ve come up with glasses to make sure we’re protected,” he said.

Everyone who goes into the grocery store takes it one day at a time.

“We’re going to work everyday, doing what we can, then we’re coming home, and hoping everyone is okay,” Gil said.


The Mail Must Get Through

The ethos of the U.S. Postal Service is “Neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night prevents us from making deliveries.” And neither does COVID-19.

James Smith (not his real name), a postal carrier in upstate New York, told the Register that his post office has seen a decrease in paper mail and a huge increase in package volume.

Amazon particularly relies upon the USPS to deliver its packages from its warehouses. Smith said everyone at the post office manages the anxiety of the job differently. No one is immune. 

“It is worrisome when you keep hearing how an Amazon facility tests positive,” he said.

At the postal office itself, he said they have been provided masks and gloves, and the managers have put in measures to keep too many mail carriers from crowding the facility as they start and end their routes.

“They’re staggering our start times,” he said, in order to maintain social distancing. Pre-pandemic, he said, there might be 20 mail carriers huddled around the time clock waiting to punch in and start their routes at the same time.

“They’re trying to do all they can,” he said. Local distilleries have also been provided hand sanitizer to the post offices.

At the same time, he said many post office workers feel the upper echelons of management at the corporate level need to recognize that postal carriers and clerks need their support. At present, they feel the post office’s corporate executives give lip-service to solidarity, while expecting them to do more work with fewer tools.

“The carriers and clerks within the Postal Service need to be given more tools to do the job safely,” he said.

But he has also seen, from many of the post office’s customers on his route, “an outpouring of kindness and appreciation.” Smith hopes a renewed respect for the work of postal carriers remains after the crisis.

At the same time, Smith, who is Catholic, told the Register that he is trusting in God more each day he goes out on his route.

“I entrust myself to his safety and care every day, because ultimately I’m going to take all the precautions,” he said. “But I can’t predict everything I’m going to run into out there.”


It Takes a Farmer

The country’s food supply chain depends on groups of people that can’t afford not to work. Grocery stores rely on truckers, for instance to keep getting food to their markets. But farmers stand firmly at the beginning of the process, and in the pandemic, they face existential risks.

“In many ways, it still is business as usual,” said Johanna Jalbert, whose family has a dairy farm in Minnesota. But family farms were already stressed pre-pandemic, and now there is a great deal of unease. Her parents received a letter from their farming co-op, which provides its members with marketing and selling, that farmers in neighboring Wisconsin are dumping their milk.

Jalbert explained that farmers depend on a chain of other businesses and industries to keep the food coming from the farm to the grocery store. For example, tractors need parts replaced, meat requires processing plants to be open, and workers  are necessary to operate feed stores. In the case of Wisconsin dairy farmers, the reason they have to dump milk is frustratingly simple.

“The company that makes plastic jugs is not able to run at full capacity right now,” Jalbert said.

This interruption is another blow to dairy farmers who have been struggling for a while. For the want of enough plastic jugs (which replaced returnable yet less economically produced glass milk jugs), dairy farmers will now lose money, and the economic shock may force some to sell their farms.

“There’s a lot of inner workings that have to go on,” Jalbert said.

However, Jalbert said people’s shock at finding grocery stores are empty or with limited supplies are providing some farmers a new opportunity to serve those populations: direct service to customers’ tables. It is also providing communities an opportunity to re-evaluate the food supply chain and how to rely on local farmers.

But for people like her parents’ dairy farm, Jalbert said, “There isn’t an easy way to fix the situation because there are so many cows.” The possibilities for new opportunities are a lot narrower and more challenging to develop.

Some smaller dairy farms have been able to safely sell raw milk direct to customers within the state, a situation that varies with each state’s health regulations.

Jalbert and her husband, however, operate what some call a “hobby farm,” where the farm is operated in conjunction with another full-time job. As “homesteaders,” they are able to raise the animals needed to sell beef, pork, chickens and eggs to customers on demand. And the ability to connect to these customers online has proven to be a game-changer in making this small farm enterprise profitable.

Jalbert said in planning the farm operation, the stay-at-home order and social distancing have provided an opportunity for her husband to reconnect in a deeper way “and know we’re in this together.” They can also see how “God writes straight with crooked lines” to change the way people think about what is important in life.

She said the crisis also highlights how important it is for people to know where their food comes from, and how invaluable are organizations such as 4-H, which teach youth how to raise and care for farm animals they rely upon for food.

“It’s another opportunity to get back to the land,” Jalbert said.


The Internet Highways

The pandemic’s unsung heroes, probably the most unseen among the most essential workers, are the men and women who keep the internet going, the vast information highway which is allowing people to keep businesses, homes, churches and communities connected virtually in a pandemic that has imposed the burdens of physical distancing and shutdowns.

Kevin, who works for an internet provider and asked that his full name be withheld, told the Register that the normally packed freeway he takes on his commute to work is now an empty 30-minute drive. His remote office usually has 10 people — now, it is reduced to two. Everyone else in the company is working from home except those who must be in the office to take the calls that keep people up and running.

“We take calls from our regional centers all around the country, and outside of one or two people they are also at home,” he said.

Kevin noted that these office employees have masks, but the need is not there with only two people sitting at desks placed more than 6 feet apart. Most of the precautions are designed to prevent others from getting them sick.

“No visitors allowed unless they have been pre-cleared,” he said. “Even the cleaning crew needs to have their temperature taken before entering. You get a fever, you are no go.”

Overall, he feels safe, but everyone is a bit on edge.

“Either they cough and you worry, or you cough and you worry,” he said. “Even when it's almost certainly nothing.”

At the very least, amid the coronavirus crisis, he sees God’s providence.

“He gave me a job where I can still provide for my family even in all the downturn,” Kevin said. “And he gives me an opportunity to provide a service, even if it’s one nobody sees.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.