Grocery stores have helped keep Americans afloat as the coronavirus pandemic has enveloped the country, ensuring families stay fed and supplied while hunkering down in their homes. But keeping markets open and well stocked has risked the health of the clerks who staff them, as well as their families.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union reported in November that at least 109 grocery workers in the union had died from covid-19, and 17,400 had been exposed or infected.
The health risks are compounded by combative customers, who have made grocery store workers the easy targets of their own daily frustrations and anxieties. Stores have become battlegrounds for anti-mask standoffs and disinfectant hoarding that cashiers and other workers have had to moderate.
But as pandemic fatigue has set in, appreciation for these workers’ sacrifices has waned. Some grocery chains that provided workers with hazard pay at the beginning of the pandemic have quietly allowed the wage bumps to expire, even as sales remain robust and coronavirus infection rates soar.
Still, these workers have returned to the front lines every day, committed to feeding their families — and their country. Here are eight stories of grocery workers on the front lines in the Houston area. These images were created using a mixed-media process that blends portraiture with the iconography and textures of grocery bags.
Avery Balli, 19
Grocery worker at Arlan’s Market
While the grocery store for many has become a cauldron of germs and anxiety, for Balli, it is a life preserver. Getting a job as a grocery worker gave her life additional structure when her university switched to online classes. At Arlan’s, she found herself on an “island of misfit toys,” as her manager affectionately calls it. She and her colleagues have kept one another’s spirits up through personal adversity.
They were an unexpected source of emotional support when Balli’s father had a stroke in July. Going to work after that was difficult, she says, and she wasn’t sure how to tell her co-workers what she was going through. But just being together was enough, she says.
Balli finds ways to squeeze in little compliments to her customers, she says, a habit that cheers them up and lifts her spirits, too. Those simple, shared moments make all the difference, because “the only places I’ve been going to are the grocery store where I work, the grocery store where I get groceries, and my home.”
Arsenio Calvelo, 67, and Grace Calvelo, 62
Owners of Jingo’s Asian Mart
The Calvelos stock their family grocery with products from all over Asia. But this year, they noticed that some shoppers would search a product’s packaging for the country of origin and put it back if it came from China. Customers say they have heard stories of Chinese food not meeting safety standards, and fear imports could carry covid-19 since the virus originated in China. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of getting the coronavirus from food products or packaging is “very low.”)
As a result, the Calvelos avoid stocking Chinese products, Arsenio says, sourcing items like salted duck eggs from Taiwan and other places instead. Their customers prefer it, he says, even though the alternative tastes different and is more expensive. Both feel the trend will outlast the pandemic. “It will take a while for [customers] to feel safe about products,” Grace says.
Tyniesha Scott, 29
Shift manager at Aldi
Scott was skeptical as the alarms about covid-19 grew louder. Adrift in a sea of misinformation, she heard rumors that test results were being marked positive for people who weren’t really infected. She bought into the false rhetoric that the coronavirus is just like the flu. So outside of work, Scott didn’t always wear a mask.
In June, she tested positive for the coronavirus and was bedridden for a month. She doesn’t know where she caught the virus, but she ultimately lost her appetite, was beset by a migraine, had constant chest pain and isolated from her family.
Despite the risks of working on the front lines, Scott still feels empowered because her job gives her a way to help her community. And she is grateful to have had a mild case. “That’s my highlight of my twilight right now,” she says. “Just being here.”
Rajiv Naik, 52
Co-owner of Raj Grocers
Curbside ordering from big grocery chains has boomed in recent months. Independent specialty store Raj Grocers is offering the service too — but for its owner, it’s more personal.
Customers text their shopping lists directly to Naik’s cellphone. He communicates with them about their desired quantities of each item and discusses substitutions when the store is out of a product. For those who find it difficult to travel to his store, including some older customers and college students, Naik prepares and delivers their orders before the store opens.
Though offering curbside pickup and delivery takes up a significant amount of his time, Naik says he does not charge a fee for the services. “This is a time where people, we all need each other,” he says. “I need the customers; customers need me. What’s the point of taking extra money?”
Frank Blain, 60
Clerk at Kroger
Blain, a one-time nurse, was pained hearing about his former coworkers battered daily in crowded hospitals and clinics. He felt he should be helping them fight through the pandemic’s surges, but instead he was rounding up carts in a Kroger parking lot. Blain lost his nursing job 18 months ago because of substance abuse. “I did what I did, so I’ve got to pay the price,” he said.
He embraced the aspects of nursing that were less than glamorous — cleaning people who were bedridden, getting a sandwich for visiting family members. He tries to bring similar compassion to his work at Kroger, including helping older customers load bags into their cars.
After applying to five or six nursing jobs daily, Blain was finally hired in January as a medical assistant at an emergency room, where he administers covid-19 tests. But he says he will continue working at Kroger one or two days a week, so he doesn’t forget how far he has come.
Jacob Streich, 20
Cashier at Kroger
When the pandemic started, grocery store advertising was quick to extol workers as “heroes” and “essential.” But this rhetoric rings hollow to Streich.
Multiple signs at his store’s entrance demand that people put on masks before entering. But Streich says he can only gently nudge maskless customers to wear one next time. “They never listen,” he says. He believes Kroger is doing the bare minimum to keep employees safe. A checkout lane at his store was missing a protective plexiglass shield for months after he started, he says. It was finally replaced in late December.
In November, when Streich fell ill and suspected he had covid-19, he took two days off and got tested. He was negative. Kroger spokeswoman Kristal Howard says company policy is to give paid emergency leave and do contact tracing. Streich says none of that happened. (Kroger did not respond to a request for comment about Streich’s particular situation.) Instead, he says, his manager only inquired once about how he was feeling and no one asked about his test results.
Darin Pulido, 20
Clerk at Food Town
Some grocery workers say they have noticed an increase in demanding or rude customers this year. For a while, Pulido experienced them only through viral videos of customers directing their fury at retail workers. “We point and laugh. ... ‘Look at this crazy woman. That poor cashier,’ ” he says. “But then that poor cashier turns into you.”
One customer unleashed a torrent of expletives because Pulido asked for the 20 cents that she was short on her balance. When she returned a week later, she cursed at him again, he says. Another customer aimed racist comments at him.
These interactions have only added to Pulido’s anxiety after two of his friends contracted the coronavirus. When they got sick, he sent messages of support and encouragement, but the replies gradually slowed. Then they stopped. He later found out both friends died.
Pulido says he has no choice but to continue on. So he goes to work, puts on his apron and tells customers, “Have a good day.”
Endiya Broussard, 19
Cashier at H-E-B
Many Americans infected by covid-19 don’t know how they contracted it. But Broussard feels immense guilt knowing that, if her 4-year-old son caught the virus, it probably would have come from her.
She has experienced a lot as an essential worker in the pandemic, from fights at her store over scarce toilet paper to being verbally attacked for enforcing store capacity limits.
Yet despite the unruly shoppers, Broussard says she does her best to treat customers with compassion. She reflects on the day a man came through her checkout lane in a bad mood. When it came time to pay, his food stamps were not enough to cover his groceries and he had to put about $20 worth of food back.
“But something spoke to me,” Broussard says. “I think it was God telling me, just bless this man. He’s been going through a lot.” Broussard swiped her own credit card to pay for the remainder of the man’s groceries. His story poured out: He had just lost his job because of the pandemic. His wife was pregnant and couldn’t work. The encounter reminds Broussard that, even if a customer lashes out, everyone is fighting a different battle.
May-Ying Lam is a freelance photographer and multimedia artist based in Houston. Previously, she was a features and magazine photo editor at The Washington Post. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Design by Katherine Lee.