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A Cashier Reports From The Grocery Front Lines


America is stocking up and hunkering down, which is made possible by grocery store workers. They're putting in backbreaking hours so that people can stay fed and supplied. They've been designated as emergency workers in some states. And on Friday, Safeway said it would give employees a $2 hourly raise. Yesterday, we called up Michelle Lee. She's a cashier at a Safeway in Alexandria, Va. And she just got off work. And I asked her how she was doing.

MICHELLE LEE: I'm doing all right. It's been really busy today. And my back is hurting a little bit. But I'm doing all right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say your back is hurting - tell me a little bit about what your day looks like.

LEE: So it's been really, really busy. The lines are really long. Customers are buying two, three, $400 worth of groceries. And it's constant. It's nonstop. And they're buying products that will last a long time that aren't perishable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's it like when you see all these people swamping the grocery stores? How does it make you feel?

LEE: I feel like, sometimes, I can't do enough. I want to do more. Or I want to be able to keep the lines down and check the customers out faster. But I've realized that I can only take care of one customer at a time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have they been empathetic to how you've been feeling?

LEE: Yes. Quite a few times today, the customers have told me thank you for working, thank you for being here. And that's been going on all week pretty much. They've been telling all of my co-workers thank you because they know that we're out there on the frontlines, taking care of them, and we're putting ourself at risk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say you are putting yourself at risk. You have to be around people, lots of them, for many hours at a time. Are you worried about that?

LEE: Yes. I'm a little concerned because I know that I actually probably checked out at least 200 customers a day. And we're wearing gloves. We're using hand sanitizer. We're washing our hands frequently. We haven't been wearing masks. But from my understanding, Safeway is supposed to be putting in some plexiglass, hopefully in the next week or so, to help divide us from the customers a little bit because we can't be 6 feet away from the customers. They're about 2 feet away from us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm just curious. You've worked for Safeway for over 30 years. Have you ever seen anything like this?

LEE: No. I've never seen anything like this. Through every snowstorm, I've never seen anything like this. I've never seen the shelves this empty. Even during 9/11, I didn't see anything like this. We cannot keep up with what the customers are buying. And the shelves are almost bare. We usually can recoup in one or two days. There's no recouping. They're buying the groceries so fast. We can't even fill the shelves up. And we have a lot of holes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you feel like you're an emergency worker on the frontlines? Because that's certainly how you're perceived.

LEE: Yes, I do because people need to eat. You have to eat to live. So they have to come in the grocery store to feed their children and feed their families. And so yes. I believe that we're on the frontlines, just like the doctors and the nurses - just a different specialty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I want to thank you very much for what you're doing right now. We all appreciate it.

LEE: You're welcome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michelle Lee has worked for Safeway for more than 30 years. And she spoke to us from Alexandria, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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