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Have a Good Day and Wash Your Totes: Working in a Grocery Store During Covid-19

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Kelly Xio likes people. They’re the best part of her job at the grocery store where she has worked on and off for the past several years. After getting laid-off from another job a few months prior, Kelly became a full-time grocery worker again in the weeks just before the COVID-19 crisis really took hold in the region. Kelly and her coworkers at their DC store first noted an uptick in the store’s foot traffic in late February, when government employees started buying food in bulk after work, “like they knew something was up,” she said. Now she’s working 10+ hour shifts and trying to make sense of a work landscape that is shifting day by day, and sometimes hour by hour.

After working at a myriad of other retail jobs, Kelly chose to work in grocery five years ago because it suits her better than restaurant work. Her store offers a food discount and health insurance for part-time workers, and as a long-term employee, Kelly also has the flexibility to take time off when she wants it. In addition to this work, Kelly is a poet and an artist. She is a poetry editor at Peach Mag, and for two years she co-hosted the interdisciplinary art event Tender FM with her friend Anna K. Crooks here in Baltimore before moving to Washington, DC in 2018. Most recently, Kelly was one of the readers for Ginevra Shay’s project Phone Call, sponsored by Transformer and written about by Nora Belblidia for this magazine.

I spoke with Kelly over the phone and email for a few weeks about how the climate in her store has changed. “People have been very, very concerned,” she said. “Some of the concern feels like perfume in a crowded elevator—everyone can sense it but we don’t fully know where it is coming from.” There are a few outliers of shoppers behaving badly, but Kelly has noticed that overall “customers are more afraid of hurting us right now; the power structures I’m used to have changed basically overnight.” 

“Creating spaces that will be able to shelter the kinda Wilhelm scream that’s in my lungs is something I look forward to and doing it again with people I love and feel safe with.”—Kelly Xio. Photo by Farrah Skeiky

In March, the store was doing larger and larger numbers, still with a small staff. In response, Kelly’s job went from being a mix of many different tasks such as stocking and helping customers source specific products, to intensive cleaning and sanitation. The store started hiring new workers who had recently lost their jobs elsewhere to keep up with the increased demand and to have enough staff to cover anyone who got sick. “No one is being fired for self quarantining and we’ve been able to hire people who lost their jobs overnight,” she said. “It’s nothing short of a blessing having people cry on payday after worrying about paying their rent. Having a job is a maelstrom of capitalism.” 

It has been widely reported that grocery workers are some of the poorest paid workers in the American economy, but until the pandemic hit, most people didn’t think about the risks of the job. Now, many of the 3 million people who work in US grocery stores are asking for hazard pay for this essential work. Kelly has always known that this work is important. “Working in the grocery world—even back during the [Baltimore Uprising] and having been raised in a food desert—has for a long time emphasized for me how essential these places are,” she said, adding that these experiences have also revealed “the critical and cruel resource inequity” that persists in society.

Kelly Xio outside of Sophomore Coffee in Baltimore

Finding that much of retail work is trust-based and personalized, Kelly makes a point to get to know her customers. Her regulars value her expertise and return to her store for it—grocery stores are places with a high turnover of staff, so when customers come in, they look for familiar faces. “Despite the fact that we aren’t holding products, when someone calls and says ‘I’m at work and won’t make it [before you close today],’ I hold the product,” she said. “A woman said when this is all over she’d come back to ask me for a hug simply because I held two loaves of her favorite bread when she was headed into night shift at the hospital.” 

When asked what we can all do to make the lives of grocery workers easier, Kelly explained that grocery workers often have anxiety about touching people’s totes because you can get rashes from unwashed bags, so it’s polite to pack your own groceries if you’re using totes from home. (Many stores and entire states  have banned reusable bags during the pandemic out of caution but Kelly’s has not). In a telling adjustment to our current moment and in an effort to educate her customers, she has changed her farewell greeting from simply “Have a good day” to “Have a good day and remember to wash your totes, store them separately, and make sure they are only used for food.” 

Another thing that anyone can do to help grocery workers is to remember that they are working, and trying not to break social distancing, so be considerate of them as they do their jobs. Chances are they are doing their best to stay away from you, too. 

A few of Kelly’s friends have also paid for her own groceries and to have her clothing laundered, small gestures that she has hugely appreciated. “Sometimes when you are getting help or support it makes you remember that there are more people in the world,” she said. “That reminder that I am not alone is everything.” 

Although customers stockpiling certain items is a real issue, Kelly said that “as much as I’ve witnessed the excessive consumption of others, presently I’ve watched people weighing the metrics of sustenance carefully and consciously… The only thing I can think of this moment is not of it as an equalizer but a moment of clarity of how things need to change.” 

Change comes up again and again in Kelly’s stories about her life lately. In the past few weeks as things have gotten more hectic at the store, she’s noticed that her art practice has shifted, too, into something more movement-based. “I want so much and my expectations for myself overwhelm,” she said. “But when I move, when I ask my body to try to embrace the intangible—motion, light, time—somehow I make sense of this.” 

“During the quarantine, I’ve been taking classes from Martha Graham modern and ballet teachers around the world and the pandemic has made expensive hobbies feel accessible. I’ve found that I try to anchor myself in any experience that reminds that I’m a body built for passion, pleasure, pain and not just employment.”—Kelly Xio.

Like all of us, Kelly is coping as she knows best, and in a highly stressed position she’s reaching for art and trying to be gentle with herself. The pandemic has revealed much about the inhumanity of working conditions, and Kelly hopes more people will help advocate for essential workers like her. “I am not a hero. It’s kinda tiresome to weigh the metrics of my labor and my humanity but ultimately I’ve withstood a lot without accolade and title,” she said. “I have so many other roles that I want to fulfill, and I recognize that I’ve always worked a job few would deem ‘real’ or ‘adult.’ I don’t sit down at a desk, I haven’t ‘made it.’ I am not likely to be a #goals or on a campaign of what it looks like to ‘thrive,’ but this is the work that I’ve been doing.”

“It feels, if anything, a tad bit nice to have people see my hours spent at the register as meaningful,” she continued. “But I hope they also show up and demand living wages and substantial retrospective reimbursement for us. We aren’t nameless or faceless; put respect on our names.”

Featured image: Gabriel Orozco, "Cats and Watermelons," 1992. Other images courtesy of Kelly Xio.

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