When the coronavirus crisis began to take hold in Australia at the beginning of March, one of the first symptoms was supermarket panic-buying. We even made global news headlines when a video of two women brawling at Woolworths over toilet paper went viral.

While not every supermarket has seen outbursts of physical violence, many workers have borne the brunt of all kinds of customer frustration. Broadsheet spoke to two supermarket workers (from the same store) on two occasions – once in March, at the height of panic-buying, and again in the second week of April, when those fiery scenes had mostly abated – to get a sense of how supermarket employees have experienced the crisis so far.

The employees did not want to be named or identify their employer for fear of losing their jobs.

March 23, 2020

Kate*, from Hoppers Crossing, is a baker at one of Australia’s major supermarket chains. She works on-site at one of the group’s locations in Melbourne’s west.

On a normal day, the 31-year-old begins her shift at 1am and typically bakes just over 100 loaves of bread and other items before finishing her shift at 9.30am.

“Right now, it’s about triple that,” she says.

Kate’s been baking for the supermarket for 11 years, and she’s never seen anything like the numbers she did in March – 290 loaves per shift at the peak. She’s often the only baker on the overnight shift, five nights a week – so a three-fold increase in her workload is no small thing.

Each bread tin carries either two large or three small loaves, and weighs in at about seven kilograms when full. If she usually bakes 112 loaves a night, the increase to 290 loaves means an extra several hundred kilograms of weight over the course of her 8.5-hour shift.

“It’s starting to take its toll. I’ve been getting a lot of tension headaches [and] pushing myself beyond what anyone should really do. Even hours after my shift I have painful bursts in my elbows, shoulders and wrists, and my hands ache from gripping the tins.”

Outside the bakery in the supermarket proper, things aren’t much better. Kate’s still in the bakery at 6am when the doors open, and is finishing her shift when the throngs intensify at 9.30am. “As soon as the doors open we have people streaming in. Everyone looks really pissed off. They’re angry and they want to get their stuff and they don’t want anyone getting in their way.” Her co-workers on the floor have told her the situation only gets worse throughout the day.

Sheridyn*, from Hadfield (in Melbourne’s northern suburbs), is one of those co-workers. The 38-year-old full-timer has been working for the supermarket chain for more than 15 years. To protect the checkout workers from conflict with customers, she’s been approaching customers before they take their trolleys to the register to let them know if they’re over product limits.

On one occasion a man became confrontational when she approached him – he’d picked up a full pallet of six-pack paper towels, which he wanted to purchase as a single unit. Despite his aggression, Sheridyn wasn’t scared – there were enough co-workers within earshot if the situation escalated beyond a verbal clash.

“I usually make a point of trying to engage [people] early,” she says. “He got a bit aggro, and I tried to explain that I don’t make the rules. [I told him] I’m just trying to make sure someone else doesn’t have to have this argument when you get to the register.”

And it’s at the register that staff are fielding most of the abuse – customers are frustrated over limits imposed on a variety of items, including sugar, flour, rice, baby wipes and toilet paper.

And when shoppers are reminded at the checkout that they’ve exceeded product limits, they leave trolleys full of items for staff to return to shelves. Resources are already strained – this just adds to the load.

Kate saw a customer “losing it” at a checkout assistant because they’d been prevented from purchasing more items beyond the limit. The store manager ended up asking the customer to leave, but the checkout worker was close to tears due to the abuse.

These limits, Sheridyn points out, aren’t at the discretion of staff – they are programmed into the point-of-sale software. On at least one occasion, the supermarket called police in response to a customer who became belligerent and refused to leave the store. The shopper eventually left of his own accord, and the police were called off.

Customers have also been spotted stalking delivery trucks and trying to make their way into the back dock – they’re convinced there are more supplies out there that haven’t made it onto the shelves yet.

Kate admits that in supermarket work there’s always the odd customer who’s rude or difficult – but this is unlike anything she’s ever seen. “Every single customer is being that one terrible customer.”

And it’s not just staff in the firing line – the hostility extends to fellow shoppers. Customers accuse each other of queue-jumping for toilet paper; they get fractious when crowds build up in traffic-heavy aisles.

Kate’s managers have been supportive, letting her go home early when they can see she’s struggling. But with no formal briefing or training on how to handle crisis conditions, staff – many of whom are part-timers, teenagers and university students – have found themselves in an unusual and complicated position: in the role of enforcer in a high-pressure environment, where tensions are exacerbated by a genuinely panicked and hostile public. It’s created a grim workplace atmosphere, she says.

“I was about a two out of 10 for mental health this morning. Everybody’s miserable. I’ve seen people come into the break room and just sit there and look like they want to cry … Everybody [looks] like they’re one second away from breaking down. I’ve never seen so many people so miserable at once.”

She feels a small change in customer attitude would have a big impact on working conditions.

“Just be nice to us,” she implores. “Everybody just needs to calm down. We’re anxious too, we’re worried about catching [the virus] as well. Especially since we’re coming into contact with so many members of the public.”

April 7, 2020

Two weeks later, Kate says the panic-buying has slowed and the hostile atmosphere has subsided, though not entirely. She suspects the limits placed on the number of customers allowed into the store at any one time have helped (numbers vary depending on the square metreage of a store).

But the list of limited-purchase products has grown – it now includes items from the bakery and deli departments, plus a broader range of household items, so the enforcement aspect of the job is still significant. Cleaning products; vinegar (which is being used to make cleaning products at home); eggs; frozen vegetables; frozen microwave meals; deli chickens; deli meats; and ready-made cake mixes have all been capped.

Staff stress levels also appear to have improved, Kate says. Employees are still under pressure (the need for rapid replacement of stock, especially flour and pasta, continues) but customer attitudes have softened – the explicit animosity has died down.

“Things are a lot less crazy, even if there are still lots of products selling out,” she says. “My friend who works the registers was telling me that customers are actually being overly nice to them, [asking], ‘Are people being nice, or are they still being mean to you?’ I was happy to hear that.”

Sheridyn agrees that the mood has shifted (“I think things are better because people are realising it’s not a store-level problem”), although she’s noticing something else setting in: fatigue. She contrasts that with the mood of the new staffers who were hired after mass redundancies in the travel and airline industries.

“[For them], the mood’s a bit more buoyant,” she says. “They’re happy to have jobs. But the regulars [are] just tired, mentally and physically. Tired of running around like idiots trying to fill the shelves.”

Supermarket etiquette in the time of Coronavirus

• Respect and observe the limits assigned to certain items. Any items you abandon at the checkout must be returned to the shelves by a team that is already stretched to capacity. And remember: it wasn’t the front-of-house staff who set those limits – even if you’re frustrated by the restrictions, workers shouldn’t be the target of your frustration.
• Don’t call ahead to ask staff if there are particular items in stock. Though this is typically part of their job, they’re so busy right now they don’t have time to check.
• Be nice and be polite. Supermarket staff are stressed for the same reasons as you – take the time to say please and thank you.
• Don’t be tempted to venture into the back dock to see if that item you’re after is there. It’s not safe, it’s not cool and it’s not allowed.