What It’s Really Like to Work at Trader Joe’s During Coronavirus

It’s not easy being an essential worker in the middle of a pandemic, but we’re all trying to do our best.

It’s been quite some time since it was an average day on the job for Shawn Sockie Chizito, a Trader Joe’s employee in Oakland, California. The chain, along with its grocery-store brethren, has seen a drastic change in its daily operations since early March, as panic set in amid concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. With shoppers frantically clearing store shelves in an attempt to stockpile necessities and little luxuries that might make daily life feel (at least a little) normal, stores are struggling to keep up with demand. The employees, familiar faces to their regular customers, are finding themselves in a unique position. Their classification as essential workers means they have been able to see firsthand how society is reacting during these uncertain times. Here’s what Chizito has experienced over the last few weeks, in his own words.

Kindness in the midst of the madness

We had a couple of crazy days at the store at the beginning, where everybody was trying to grab everything they could and get supplies that were going to last them a while. People were coming in by the hundreds. It was really busy, and some customers noticed we were doing our best.

It was during a lunch break that I saw people stocking up on water. I figured I should buy some for myself, both to go with my lunch and to take home. So, I lined up like everybody else and began speaking with the customer in front of me about the whole pandemic and what we were trying to do at the store. The lady behind me was listening, and as my coworker started ringing up my items, she said, “Excuse me, sir, but do you mind if I pay for your water today? I know it isn’t much, but it’s the least I can do because of all the things you’re doing. It’s risky for you to be out here, but you are keeping the store running.” I appreciated the gesture so much.

It was a small gesture, but it was a big deal at that moment. It awakened me. It made me realize that what we’re doing is a big deal. We’re out here in the store with all sorts of customers. Some are keeping it together, some are freaking out, and others are mad. It’s rough times, but we’re doing what we can do. That one customer’s actions kept me smiling all day—I never got frustrated or overwhelmed. I appreciated it so much that I posted about it on the app Nextdoor. I had to share it.

Here’s what else Trader Joe’s employees want you to know in more normal times.

Helping where we can

Since then, we’ve gotten compliments from so many customers. “Thank you guys for being here,” they’ve said. So many people are appreciating what we are doing right now. Things have taken a positive turn. In the beginning, this just hit us from nowhere. We were just trying to learn what to do and keep up with the demand, and it was crazy. Of course, it is scary to do what we’re doing right now, but I keep telling myself that we’re doing this for a good cause. What we’re doing right now keeps everybody going. I think that’s the one thing that drives me. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t be out there treating people. This is the least we can do. It’s not that easy, but doing it is satisfying.

Check out these uplifting stories of neighbors helping during coronavirus that will inspire you to do the same.

Changes in protocol

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In AmericaCliff Hawkins/Getty Images

As a company, Trader Joe’s has had to come up with new ideas. There has to be distance among the customers, so we’re limiting the number of shoppers in the store, letting in five to 10 people depending on the crowd inside. When they get into the store, we wipe their carts with alcohol wipes, then we spray their hands with hand sanitizer. As shoppers line up, they will see markers spaced out on the floor to put six feet of space between each customer. There’s a hand sanitizer at each register to use before you leave. If you miss that, we have a team member at the doorway. As you exit the store, you get your hand sprayed by hand sanitizer. Whoever comes in clean leaves the store clean.

Gloves are available for the crew members ringing up customers, and we make sure there is a marking on the floor where customers should stand so they don’t get too close. There’s also a team member going around the store from when it opens to when it closes, cleaning things that might have been touched by customers. Their focus is making sure those places are clean all the time. We are rationing products, too—products that sell out fast, like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and water. Nobody takes more than two of each product in a single transaction so that everybody gets something.

If you can’t find your regular cleaning supplies, try these 4 household products that kill coronavirus, according to Consumer Reports.

Staying safe

Right now, I feel safe. The feedback I’m getting from the customers is that our efforts are working. There may be a lot of people lined up outside the store, but then I get inside and there are just six customers. It’s such a relief. It feels like home. Our store is our home. We’re a team. We’re a family. Customers feel this way, too. They say, “We love what you guys are doing.” A customer said she waited outside for ten to 15 minutes, but when she got inside it was worth it. She wasn’t bothered by too many people in the store and she was able to take her time.

What gives me hope

These are hard and testing times. It’s also when you get to see the best and worst of people. I’ve been privileged enough to witness the good stuff. All these things make me appreciate the neighborhood that I live in and the neighborhood that I work in. I’m from Uganda; I came here in 2018. All of the beautiful things that neighbors have done for each other, it gives you hope. It makes you feel like we’re in this together.

For more on this developing situation, including how people are staying safe and sane, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.