Working at a grocery store during a pandemic

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Logan Bik

Tara Byers (left) and Julie Ryne (right) inside of their apartment in Hollywood, California.

Logan Bik and Logan Bik

The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone, including health care workers and those working at grocery stores, reinforcing what it means to be an essential worker. Working at a Trader Joe’s Market in Los Angeles, partners Tara Byars and Julie Ryne, have been adjusting to life as essential workers under L.A.’s safer-at-home orders.

Having a partner as an essential worker can be challenging, as there is the fear of bringing the virus back home. However, Byars and Ryne work at the same Trader Joe’s location while also living under the same roof.

Ryne has worked at Trader Joe’s for six years. Byars started working at Trader Joe’s roughly three years ago. Both Ryne and Byars worked during the first two weeks of lockdown, which was the craziest time, according to Ryne.

“A lot of people started freaking out and buying enough food for two weeks, and that created a lot of chaos,” Ryne said.

The two Crew Members — their official position — said they are happy with what the company has done, although adjusting to the changes can be difficult.

“We’re doing a lot more for the customer,” Byars said. “As far as being outside with the people in line or talking to people at the door, reminding people in the store to keep their social distance just to be safe.”

In an effort to keep vulnerable customers safe, Trader Joe’s has revised its store hours, allowing senior citizens and disabled customers to shop an hour before the general public is allowed to enter.

An employee at the Agoura Hills location tested positive earlier this month, which caused that store to close for deep cleaning. All Trader Joe’s stores started doing wellness checks on its employees to limit the spread inside their stores.

“The Wellness Checks screen for potential exposure to COVID-19 and for symptoms consistent with a COVID-19 infection. Wellness Checks are an extra precaution we are taking to reduce the possibility of any Crew Members inadvertently exposing their fellow crew or our customers to illness,” Trader Joe’s said in a statement.

In the past, Trader Joe’s has supported its employees with benefits such as a possible annual pay raise based on the employee’s performance, retirement plans, discounts, paid time off, health insurance and so on. During the pandemic, the company is offering their employees more benefits.

“They’ve done a really good job helping us,” Byars said. “During this time, they’re giving us 20% off groceries, a $2 pay raise and have been understanding of our mental capacity.”

Trader Joe’s is following public health recommendations by encouraging its employees to wear masks and gloves. The company has also installed plexiglass barriers at check out stands.

Byars said it was difficult to adjust to wearing a mask for a whole shift.

“It was hard to get used to because you have this thing on your face for eight hours and you’re trying to breathe,” Byars said. “It can be a little bit of a tax, but when you realize how much more beneficial it is for your health, all that stuff kind of goes to the wayside.”

The couple said they have noticed customers are more chatty since the lockdown started.

“Sometimes you’re the only person that person gets to talk to all day, maybe that whole week, Byars said. “So it can be a little bit stressful.”

Regardless of the challenges they face on the job, the pair said customers are generally grateful for their work.

“A lady told me we should be paid the same amount as doctors and in my head I was like ‘No.’,” Ryne said while laughing. “‘But thank you.’”

Byars and Ryne plan to continue working with a smile on their face, even if it is hidden behind a mask.

Ryne and Byars looking outside of their apartment window. (Logan Bik)