Essential worker Amber Rodriguez is a store clerk at the Silver Lake Safeway in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Essential worker Amber Rodriguez is a store clerk at the Silver Lake Safeway in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The pandemic’s other front line: Any grocery store’s aisles

At an Everett Safeway, a store director screens employees and gently enforces social distancing.

This is one of several stories about essential workers during the COVID-19 outbreak. They might not be true first responders, but we couldn’t live without them.

EVERETT — Roberta Holman isn’t accustomed to putting limits on customers.

Need paper towels? Normally, she’d say go ahead and fill a shopping cart — there are plenty more in the stock room.

Except now, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, there aren’t plenty more.

“The limits were kind of new for us. Some customers complained,” said Holman, the store director at a Safeway grocery in Silver Lake.

The run on paper products has subsided. But with the shelter-in-place order continuing, new shortages have cropped up.

“We can’t keep yeast on the shelves,” said Holman. “Everyone is baking bread.”

And lately, a new trend has store clerks scurrying through the aisles.

Customers are adding new ingredients to their shopping lists and want to know where to find the tahini sauce or the saffron.

“People are tired of their cooking. They’re trying new recipes,” said Holman.

Holman has worked at Safeway for 39 years, including 22 years as a store director at supermarkets in Everett and Marysville.

Grocery store workers are on the front lines. Nationwide, thousands have been affected by the coronavirus and more than 70 have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

In April, Safeway’s parent, Albertsons Companies and the UFCW, sought to have grocery workers classified as temporary first responders to ensure they received priority access to personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing.

“I don’t think of myself as an essential worker,” said Holman. “I come to work every day just like everyone else.”

Amber Rodriguez checks out a customer at the Silver Lake Safeway in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Amber Rodriguez checks out a customer at the Silver Lake Safeway in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Her morning routine — grab a coffee, survey the aisles and chat with staff — has vanished.

These days, she goes directly to her office, dons a mask, wipes down her desk with disinfectant and stations herself at the employee entrance.

“I screen our employees when they arrive for their shift: ‘Do you have a cough, a temperature, feel sick to your stomach? If you feel any of those things, you shouldn’t be at work.’”

Her biggest challenge is enforcing social distancing rules. Customers are used to coming in close or reaching around a store employee to grab a pound of hamburger or a gallon of milk.

That’s had to change, she said.

“You don’t realize how important a grocery store is to the community,” Holman said. “It’s a food source. For older folks, the grocery store visit is their social hour.”

The store has also seen a sharp increase in kindness, she said.

“People are shopping for their neighbors. They’re filling two or three orders at a time,” she said. “The community has come together in a way I haven’t seen before.”

Amber Rodriguez, a cashier and stocker at the Silver Lake Safeway, agrees.

“I see a lot of people paying it forward,” said Rodriguez, who wore a Seahawks-themed protective mask.

“Yesterday, this guy bought a $20 gift card and told me to give it to someone who needs it. I gave it to a single mom with three kids who’d just her lost her job.”

Rodriguez’ routine also has changed. For one thing, she misses the camaraderie of co-workers.

“On Wednesdays, we’d finish stocking at 2 a.m. and go off to the bar. Now, we’re out of here,” she said.

Silver Lake Safeway store manager Roberta Holman has been with the company for 39 years. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Silver Lake Safeway store manager Roberta Holman has been with the company for 39 years. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

When she takes a turn behind the register, her voice goes up a notch or two.

Safeway recently installed Plexiglas sneeze guard at check stands.

“We all have to talk really loud now — through a mask and Plexiglas,” Rodriguez explained.

In late March, parent company Albertsons gave employees an extra $2 an hour hazard pay and announced plans to hire 2,000 workers.

Since then, the Silver Lake Safeway has added about 20 new employees, including stockers, cashiers and bakery workers.

Many of the new hires had worked at restaurants or gyms and then lost their jobs when those businesses shut down.

Holman can relate. Her oldest daughter, a bar manager, was laid off when the bar closed.

“My daughter found a new job right way,” said Holman “Now, she works at a Safeway store in Issaquah.”

“She called me the other day and said, ‘I didn’t think I would ever do this, Mom. I really like it.’”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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