Retail

UK supermarket staff say they have become the 'forgotten key workers'


When the UK first went into lockdown last March, many supermarket workers said they had never felt so appreciated. Customers would thank them for their service, leave chocolates for the staff room and applaud delivery vans as if they were carrying royalty rather than groceries.

Not any more, according to numerous store employees who contacted the Guardian to express their fears and frustrations about working through the second wave. From debit card refuseniks pulling down their masks to lick their fingers and separate their twenties, to families treating a trip to the supermarket as a social outing, many felt they were now the “forgotten key workers”. Others feel taken for granted, suffering anxiety and panic attacks as a result of their work environment.

“In lockdown one it felt a little embarrassing at times – people would wave, even stop and applaud as you went past as if you were a NHS worker. Now, it’s back to normal. Block a cul-de-sac for five minutes and you can expect abuse,” said Ben Harvey, who started delivering groceries for a supermarket in April after losing his job as a sales executive. “You want to tell them that you’re delivering essential supplies during a global pandemic and they shouldn’t even be out, but in your employer’s van and uniform you obviously just have to bite your tongue and suck it up.”

Conspiracy theorists are making the job harder, said one worker from a small supermarket in the home counties. “The maskless hordes and the QAnon conspiracy spouters seem to grow by the day. Many don’t care, some are just ignorant; but the most dangerous are those that think they’re following the rules. Customers who keep their distance from others, but crawl over shop staff to get their ‘essential’ Red Bull and loo roll, thanking them for everything they are doing from a mask pulled down to their chin to ‘help’ convey their message with sincerity and microdroplets of Covid-19.”

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The media seemed to have forgotten supermarket workers, he said: “Doctors and nurses are continually featured in the news (and rightly so), but there is very little mentioned about those who have worked throughout the pandemic and the toll this year has taken on them.

“My mental health has been battered beyond belief and no matter what my behemoth employer says – there has been no consideration shown to the wellbeing and mental health of their staff. It has gone unchecked and unconsidered while we ring endless products through the non-socially distanced checkouts and stuff dirty cash into the ever expanding pockets of the shareholders and directors.”

Social distancing had gone out of the window, he complained: “My little village shop is tiny, it has three aisles and (literally) no room to swing a cat on the shop floor. The company have told us that the customer limit is 22 people. I cannot express how crazy the notion of cramming 22 customers, plus five or so staff, into the shop is. [My employer] decided towards the end of the first lockdown to remove the one-way system in its stores. We appealed against that decision, and still do, but are told that ‘people weren’t following it’.”

One home shopper working in Sussex said there had been an increase in people treating a trip to the supermarket as a day out or an excuse to socialise. “There are just far too many people who come in and wander around the shop because they don’t have anything else to do”, or whole families of six or more people,” she said.

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As a home shopper, she spends long shifts packing six bags at a time for online customers. “It may sound a bit dramatic, but we feel like we are literally putting our lives on the line, like any frontline worker, so that people can eat. If delivery and home shopping didn’t exist, people would have to go out.”


A till worker in a supermarket in Scotland said mask etiquette was poor. “People get to my till, puffing away and moaning about ‘not being able to breathe’ even though they haven’t turned blue yet and are speaking clearly to me. They believe so much that they can’t breathe they pull the mask away from their mouths and down to their chin as if being at the till suddenly makes it safe to do this and Covid only goes as far as the till belt. Oh and let’s not forget the amount of old people and middle aged people who all pull their masks down, lick their fingers to give me cash because the ‘notes all stick together’.”

The manager of one store in south-east England said several members of their team were suffering from anxiety and panic attacks as a result of customer behaviour. Mental health problems were being exacerbated by staff shortages, she said. “Most staff members are exhausted because colleagues are shielding/self isolating and so everyone else takes the strain because there is still a lot of work to do. On New Year’s Eve I overheard lots of customers talking about the secret party/gatherings they were having and laughing about breaking the rules. It’s really hard to hear stuff like that, especially when they are not just putting their friends lives at risk, but ours too. It makes you feel so angry, actually and I often want to say something to them.”

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There was a bigger sense of comradeship before, she said. “People were doing their neighbours shopping and learning how to bake and cook etc. We were the only people that customers were seeing and we got to know them better. People would send us letters of thanks and care packages etc as key workers and we felt valued. All of the goodwill towards key workers seems to have vanished now. We feel exhausted, stressed and abused most of the time. It’s really hard to switch off too. But still we go back each day and keep filling the shelves to feed the nation.”



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