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The Forgotten Essential Workers: working in supermarkets during a pandemic

From verbal and physical abuse to constant exposure to strangers.

Photo: Chloe Henry

Having worked at one of the big supermarkets myself, aggravated customers were part of the daily routine. With the introduction of stage four lockdown, the amount of stressed, disrespectful customers increased, especially with Victorian curfew causing supermarkets to shut their doors before 8pm.

The 8pm curfew began on August 2 and lasted until it was extended to 9pm on September 14. Despite supermarkets and essential businesses announcing their new closing times via social media and public statements, many customers claimed to be unaware of the new trading hours for weeks after the curfew was put in place.

Such customers took their frustrations out on the security and staff whose responsibility was to make sure everyone was out of the store before curfew.

Rachel, 20, a supermarket employee from South-East Melbourne, has experienced more than her fair share of abuse from customers during the restrictions; being yelled at and verbally abused for reminding customers that the store closes at 7:30pm.

While Rachel said “the disrespect and lack of regard for retail members has always been prevalent”, she believes that during lockdown restrictions supermarket workers “have been more victimised by customers due to their anger of staying home”.

Jason, 22, another supermarket employee from the South-East, strongly believes that customers’ entitlement increased “since lockdown was enforced”, saying “customers feel more entitled than ever”.

The young worker, currently finishing his last semester of university, said going to work stressed him out, as he had to deal with frustrated and rude people on a daily basis. He had considered cutting back shifts to avoid additional stress caused by difficult customers.

“Lack of manners or disregard for others is never going to change unfortunately.”

Jason recalled a recent event in which a “lovely” co-worker was harassed by a “rude and arrogant” customer for providing alternatives to a product that was out of stock. Jason said he intervened due to the customer’s “arrogant attitude and raising of voice”, telling the customer “his behaviour towards staff was not wanted, or warranted”.

The customer accused Jason of yelling at him instead, which the young worker denied. The customer disregarded his comments and walked away with his products, and without repercussion. Sadly, this is a daily occurrence for many supermarket employees, especially those in customer service roles.

A survey in 2017 by SDA Victoria, found “more than 85 percent of respondents” had been subjected to verbal abuse from a customer in the last 12 months, that being 2016-2017. This same study also concluded that 51.26 percent of respondents said no action was taken after they reported an incident.

No surveys have been done regarding abuse of customer service workers during COVID-19 restrictions, but Rachel and Jason, along with many other supermarket workers around Victoria, agreed that abuse from customers is an ongoing, regular issue, if not more prevalent than ever during the pandemic.

Supermarket employees come into contact with hundreds of strangers during a single shift, which, during a pandemic, poses a major risk to their own health and wellbeing. Yet many still receive complaints and abuse from customers for simply doing their job.

On the discussion of whether she feared losing her job over customer complaints, Rachel said “it is more of a fear of abuse from customers that have been asked…to use their manners”.

“Lack of manners or disregard for others is never going to change unfortunately.”

When asked about how management deals with instances of abuse, both Jason and Rachel agreed that their management does the best they can to protect their employees.

“They have initiatives in place to help us cope with abuse,” Rachel said.

Jason agrees: “I think management do protect us and aim to back us up…they always try to diffuse a situation”.

COVID-19 has had a negative impact on every Australian, and during this period it is important to remember that everyone is struggling, and a little bit of respect for essential workers can go a long way.

Management from both Coles and Woolworths stores in Victoria were contacted for statements, but declined to comment.

*The interviewed individuals' places of work and names have been changed to protect their identities.


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