In a pandemic, working at a grocery store is risky — and vital

Only a few products sitting on shelves on toilet paper aisle.
As Minnesotan's stock up to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery stores like this Cub Foods in West St. Paul are struggling to keep up with demand.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Trevon Tellor didn’t see any of this coming — the panic buying, in particular.

He works at a grocery store in the Twin Cities metro area. (He’s not a manager — and not authorized to speak on the store’s behalf — so he asked that the store’s name not be mentioned.)

He took a few weeks off last month to study for his exams at Augsburg University. Before he left, everything at the store was normal. People were buying the regular stuff: Avocados. Hard cheese.

By the time he returned to work last weekend, everything had changed: People were in full-on stockpiling mode.

“A lot of the time it’s not even stuff I think people would need to stock up on,” he said. “I saw a guy walk out with, like, nine bottle of olive oil.”

He didn’t expect things to move this quickly. But while he was away, studying, the highly contagious new coronavirus spread in Minnesota, and across the country. Now, his college has extended its spring break. His classes will probably be online for a while. And every day, the store where he works is packed with customers preparing to be stuck inside for weeks, following state and federal health officials’ guidance to practice “social distancing,” avoid crowds and wash their hands regularly.

Tellor, and thousands of grocery store workers like him, have found themselves on the front lines of the pandemic spreading nationwide: They’re around people all day long, breathing air other people breathed first, touching things other people have touched, reaching for the hand sanitizer every few minutes.

Only a few produce items in potato and onion section.
The empty potato and onion section at Knowlan’s Fresh Foods in South St. Paul on Monday.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

It’s risky, underpaid — and not exactly the job they signed up for.

Tellor said a nurse recently came through his checkout line. As they talked, he realized they were describing their work in almost the same terms.

“And I’m not a college-trained nurse experiencing this,” he said. “I’m just at a grocery store.”

But Tellor said he likes this new, slightly terrifying version of his job a lot better.

He never took much identity from his work. At best, it was a way to make rent. At worst, he said, it felt like selling out.

“This could be my college education getting to me,” he said, “but I definitely buy the idea that I’m being exploited by my company. Now I’m actually helping people get what they need.”

Only a few products sitting on shelves on medicine aisle.
The cold and flu medicine shelves are nearly empty at the Target in West St. Paul on March 1.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Tellor plans to go to seminary after college. He said he wants to be what he describes as a “radical Lutheran pastor.” Emphasis on “radical.” He cares deeply about social justice. Working in an industry that doesn’t always take the best care of its staff seemed morally suspect.

But grocery stores are vital right now, more than ever. They can’t shut down. They can’t be run from home, with an internet connection. In this complicated moment, Tellor said, he’s feeling a real purpose.

He had planned to spend time with his family over spring break. But his mother has health concerns that put her at risk if she gets COVID-19. His grandfather is almost 80 — also at risk.

So he’s not even going over for visits. He’s just going to work, and then back to his apartment. He’s staying away from the people he loves to protect them if he gets the virus. He’s young — just 19. He figures he’ll be OK.

But in the meantime, he wants to do his part to make things better.

He’s even working with leaders at his church to start a grocery delivery service for those in their community who need it. The idea is still in its early stages, but he hopes to make it work.

He has a company discount, after all. He might as well use it.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.

Map: Confirmed cases across the state