Social distressing: Working in retail in COVID-19 times

How daily life has changed for retail staff since the measures to stem COVID-19 came into effect. A personal recount by SIMMI SINGH

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How daily life has changed for retail staff since the measures to stem COVD-19 came into effect.

Every day I step out of the house to go to work now, it is with trepidation. I am no longer fresh and bristling with energy but fearful and confused. I work in what is considered ‘Essential Retail’.

As I say goodbye to my family who are social distancing by working and studying from home, I am grateful they are safe and at home.

I am, however, the risk to me and them!

I am the one dealing with a variety of people, touching potentially hazardous surfaces and breathing potentially unsafe air. I have little choice but to do so to avoid joining the hundreds waiting outside Centerlink.

My boss sends messages of ‘support’ telling us we can afford to pay the bills, while quoting fresh statistics of job losses in other industries.

Meanwhile, every person who steps through the door looks suspicious to me!

Has he self-isolated after travelling from another country? Is she running a temperature? Is that cute kid a carrier? Did I touch anything I shouldn’t? It is no longer a joy to offer service nor sell.

I wear a mask that sometimes mists my prescription glasses; I change gloves three times a day at least; I got the masking tape out and marked the spot so people know how far to stand from me and I confess its more than 1.5 metres. One can’t be careful enough.

It does not deter some people though; they come straight up to me, way too close even for normal comfort and demand service. Obviously they don’t read the news or think nothing will happen and are willing to take chances.

Either way I am the one at risk!

The discussion at home is no longer about the next social outing or my friend’s wedding or my own upcoming milestone; it’s about bills, sanitation and sanity. My worry nowadays is will I live to see my own landmark birthday?

I am normally the strong one in my family, so none of the above is familiar territory. Up until now I did not know what living in fear meant.

Thanks to a virus the entire world is living in fear, barring the ones who still visit stores coughing all over the place, standing too close, wanting to shake hands and stepping closer when you step back. 

They do not know the fear that I do! 

Friends who work in frontline have similar stories. Some of their workplaces are taking things seriously, some are slack. With the situation changing rapidly people are being impacted in various ways.

21-year-old Alysha works in a bank. Her parents do not want her to go to work. She is fearful she will lose the opportunity so early in her working career. She is equally worried for her frail grandparents who live with them. She is undecided what to do.

49-year-old Sharee works in telecommunications and has asked her employer how she will be supported should she contract the virus; she’s still waiting for an answer. Her immediate supervisor speculated that they might ask her to use her own sick and annual leave in that situation and she will need to pay her own medical bills.

19-year-old Ravi works on the cash counter at a local essential retail and had just started living on his own with friends as roommates. They’ve all moved back with their parents, as they have no security of hours anymore to be able to afford the rent. Ravi had his hours slashed from 20 to 4.

39-year-old Vik has worked in retail for nearly twenty years. He is the sole bread earner with two little children. After work, he enters the family home via the laundry door and has a shower first. He then puts his clothes in the washing and wipes every surface that he has touched. His children cannot understand why they cannot hug their dad anymore. He just does not wish to expose them or take any chances.

The need of the hour is for employers and employees to work together to protect the health of employees and customers and to keep the workplace delivering essential services.

Here are some preventive measures for essential retail establishments to mitigate risk:

  • Place posters and other signage that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquettes at the entrance to your establishment and in other nearby areas where they are likely to be seen by customers and clients.

  • Ensure a clean and sanitary environment. Have employees disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, tables, desks, and handrails. Provide disposable wipes to ensure frequently used surfaces are cleaned.
  • Encourage essential retail staff who can, to telework or work online

  • Space workers at the worksite, Stagger work schedules, decrease social contacts in the workplace (limit one on one meetings)
  • Reduce the capacity of customers. Ensure that people keep 1.5 metres away from others
  • Encourage tap and pay instead of cash
  • Screen employees everyday to identify the key symptoms to watch for as fever, cough and shortness of breath
  • Provide ready access to hand sanitizer and hand sanitizer stations and request employees and customers to abide by personal hygiene recommendations

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