COVID Chronicles: Grocery Store Worker Travis Smith
The long-time Stop and Shop employee shares what it's like to be an essential worker during the coronavirus pandemic in Rhode Island.
Every shift, Stop and Shop worker Travis Smith comes face-to-face with Rhode Island’s rule breakers and rule followers. The former ignore social distancing guidelines; the latter pull down their masks to pose questions. One thing’s for sure: We won’t look back on the pandemic as a time of mental clarity. But, hopefully, we’ll look back on it as one of understanding. Thankfully, Smith has an abundance of that.
On Saturday morning, I caught up with Smith to talk about his work before he headed in for a shift at the Narragansett store. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Rhode Island Monthly: How long have you worked [at Stop and Shop] and what do you do?
Travis Smith: I’ve worked there for seventeen years and I stock shelves in the grocery/natural foods department.
RIM: Could you tell us a bit about the start of the outbreak and how it changed your work?
T.S.: We definitely got big rushes once there were positive cases near Rhode Island. Cleaners, wipes and toilet paper were the first things that really took a hit on the shelves. Once there was positive cases in Rhode Island, it was more food-related purchases. I honestly didn’t expect the shelves to get as empty as they did. It’s definitely the worst I’ve saw the store stocked-wise since I’ve worked there.
RIM: Has it still been tough to keep things on the shelves? What other items have been quick to go?
T.S.: Yes it’s definitely been difficult to keep things stocked. In the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of limits on quantity because I think the stores didn’t expect so much bulk-buying from people. Probably by mid-morning, any of the items related to cleaning or toilet paper that we received on the load is gone. Pasta and mac and cheese are usually pretty quick to go. Some of the surprising things are baking type items. Flours, yeast, powdered milk have been hard to come by. I guess everyone is baking with their spare time now.
RIM: What’s the timeline for new shipments? Do they come every day, i.e. if someone needs something, should they be coming first thing?
T.S.: We usually get deliveries every day for grocery, dairy and produce type items. Frozen deliveries have been coming once or twice a week. I would definitely suggest to shop early for items that go quick. The stores are offering early hours for people sixty or older from 6 to 7:30 a.m.; after that it is open to everyone else.
RIM: How have the customers been treating you and your co-workers?
T.S.: Most of the customers have been great, they are understanding of the situation we are in. There are some that have been not so pleasant due to availability of items but I feel like that is the case during normal times as well. My only major concern is the close proximity they come in when they approach us to ask questions. Some even take their mask down to try to make it easier to hear them.
RIM: Have people been able/willing to keep the six feet social distancing in place?
T.S.: I think most people are trying. I think it’s difficult due to habits of normal shopping. The stores have added arrows to the aisle to try to make them “one way” traffic but they are sometimes ignored. Also, some people are not limiting the amount of visits they make to the store. I work there five days a week and I will see some of the same people every day I’m there.
RIM: Do you worry about exposure?
T.S.: I do definitely worry about exposure. I haven’t seen my parents since they are high risk. We have been using Zoom and HouseParty apps to stay connected with our friends. We have been wearing masks in the store since April 9th. We have plenty of cleaners and sanitizers at store level for the workers. I have just been vigilant about washing my hands and not touching my face or mask to limit my chances of catching the virus. I also sanitize my phone when I get home in case there was any contamination.
RIM: Are your customers wearing masks now, too?
T.S.: Most of the customers are wearing masks now. It was a pretty slow process even though the governor had been asking people to use them if they were going out in public. I believe there is an executive order in place now but even as of yesterday there were still people shopping without some kind of face covering.
RIM: How are the customers treating each other?
T.S.: Pretty well, mostly. We have had a few issues with customers getting upset with other customers for not staying six feet apart in lines and aisles.
RIM: I feel like that urge is kicking in everywhere. What would you say to help people get through shopping?
T.S.: Be prepared the best you can before you come shopping so you can minimize the amount of shopping trips you have to make. Make a list and have backups for meal ideas in case we have some items out of stock. We have cleaning wipes for carriages and hand sanitizer at the front of the store, so make use of them. To protect your family and the store workers, limit the amount of people shopping with you to only those who are necessary.
I also think it’s great that Stop and Shop has been able to provide us with quality surgical masks for our safety, since I know they have been hard to find. It helps my wife, who is a health care worker, worry about me a little less when I’m at work.
RIM: What does your wife do for work?
T.S.: She’s a pediatric occupational therapist at Hasbro, but right now she is helping the respiratory therapy team at Rhode Island Hospital.
RIM: So you’re both essential workers. What do you guys do to decompress at the end of the day?
T.S.: On work nights I usually read or play video games. My wife is working twelve-hour shifts so usually by the time she gets home, she showers and goes to bed. On our days off, we try to spend time together and take our minds off things and feel “normal,” like watching Netflix or doing a puzzle. If it’s a nice day we try to get outside, which can definitely help give a mood boost.
RIM: I recently saw that Stop and Shop and its union want workers to be designated extended first responders. Are you in the union, and could you offer some insight?
T.S.: I am in the union. All Stop and Shop employees other than the assistant and store managers are in the union. Honestly, I’m just seeing this information right now myself. I think it would be a good idea for employees of markets be able to get priority testing and emergency child care. We are coming in contact with a large number of the population and it would be beneficial for everyone if we had priority testing. I don’t have children, but I think it’s important for employees to have access to emergency child care so they can keep working and not have to take a leave from work with most child care options closed.
RIM: Is there anything else you’d like to add — anything you think people should know about your experience as an essential worker?
T.S.: I guess just that it is a tough time for everyone, as a worker or a shopper. It’s stressful for both sides and we just all need to do the best we can to make it easier for everyone.