I Spent a Pandemic Behind a Grocery Store Cash Register
“What would it look like for that man in the business suit who comes in in his SUV and loads up with groceries… what if he had to work in the grocery store?”
On this week’s episode of Going for Broke With Ray Suarez, Ann tells us how her co-workers at the grocery store where she works chase shoplifters and clean up bathrooms, while shoppers, afraid of contagion, treat her like she’s untouchable. Ann grew up working class and trained to be a college professor but then the academic jobs disappeared. In the meanwhile, she co-founded an organization called the Debt Collective that fights for student debt cancellation. By the time the pandemic rolled around, she found herself out of work—so she took this job at a local grocery store.
Listen to this week’s episode to learn what it’s been like working in a grocery store during a pandemic year, including the surreal interactions between customers, those experiencing homelessness, and those who work in her store. We’ll also hear from Ann about her ideas for changing the existing paradigm and shaking up the hierarchies that divide and alienate us.
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Speaker 1: Hi, how are you? Good.
ANN LARSON: The one word that comes to mind when I think of grocery store work is repetition.
Speaker 1: The total is $42.15.
ANN LARSON: It’s incredibly repetitive.
Speaker 1: Hi, how are you?
ANN LARSON: You do the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
Speaker 1: Hi. Good. How are you?
ANN LARSON: And then you come in the next day and you do it again.
Speaker 1: Hi, how are you?
ANN LARSON: And there’s a kind of just stultifying boredom that all of us are subjected to on a daily basis that I find really quite violent.
Speaker 1: Hi, how are you?
ANN LARSON: It’s hard on your mind. It makes you crazy. It exhausts you.
Speaker 1: Hi, how are you?
ANN LARSON: Really, when I think about trying to get another job, trying to leave the store, the one thing I’m trying to escape is the repetition.
Speaker 1: Hi, how are you? Good, how are you?
RAY SUAREZ: From the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation, this is Going for Broke.
I’m Ray Suarez. Each week, we’ll bring you stories of people living hard times, people who are documenting their own stories and in the process offering up insights for the rest of us. Insights about what’s broken in America and how to fix it. We’ll finish with conversations about the issues and the solutions that can give us hope. On today’s episode, Ann Larson takes us inside her $15-an-hour job as a cashier in a grocery store. She wrote an essay about her experiences titled “My Pandemic Year Behind the Checkout Counter.” And, just a note, we’re not going to name the store or its location to protect Ann’s job.
ANN LARSON: I am on my way, I’m walking to work. It’s a beautiful, sunny day. People are out having lunch outside, walking their dogs and I am… heading to the grocery store. I walk to work because I don’t have a car. Can’t afford it. One of the reasons I took the job at the store, because it’s within walking distance to my apartment. So it’s really convenient. It’s worked out that way. Whenever I walk to work, like to just take a moment, take a breath, get ready for the shift to come. I always experience a little bit of dread in thinking about what might happen, different problems that might come up, customers who are angry or upset, people who might try to steal things, that might cause problems. Just the dread too, of just the long night. You get to work and you know that you have eight more hours to go and then you begin counting down. And so on the walk to work, you know, I sort of just think about what’s coming and try to get ready for it.
I work in a very large store. It’s got a huge central concourse with 12 aisles of products, and on either side are different sections. Dozens and dozens of people are working there at any one time.
All right, I’m approaching the door to my store, about to go in. There’s some construction nearby. People are pulling in and out of the parking lot. I can already see some of my colleagues. I’ve got my mask on. I’m ready to go in and clock in.
RAY SUAREZ: Ann wasn’t always a grocery store worker. She grew up working class in a small farming community in the West. After college, she moved east to forge a career.
ANN LARSON: I really wanted to be in the big city and I wanted to have a professional-class job.
RAY SUAREZ: She waited tables for many years and then enrolled in graduate school, hoping to pursue a career in higher ed, teaching English literature and composition. But then came the financial crisis of 2008. Academic jobs disappeared. Ann started working for nonprofits. She also cofounded an organization called the Debt Collective that fought for student debt relief.
ANN LARSON: But long story short, by the time the pandemic came around, I sort of found myself back in my home region, really having to start over.
I took this job during the pandemic because grocery stores were hiring in my area. I was having trouble finding work and I looked a long time for something I could do remotely, something I could do online, but I really wasn’t finding much and realizing that it was getting down to the wire and I needed to take what I could get. My strongest memory of my first day is being totally exhausted. I’m middle-aged, but I thought I was in pretty good shape, but no, no. I walked out of that place on the first day, I just wanted to collapse on the sidewalk. I was exhausted.
You don’t think, oh, grocery store, you cashier, you stand there and you just check groceries all day. What could be hard about that? But again, it’s the repetitive behaviors. The pulling items from one side of the conveyor belt to the other, scanning items. There’s a lot of other work: restocking bags, lifting things, bending over, picking up customers’ bags and putting them into the cart, physically taxing work. There’s kind of a joke in our store that anybody over 40 is just, their body’s already destroyed if they’ve been doing this very long. And the thing is, when your body can’t function anymore, you can’t work there.
RAY SUAREZ: It wasn’t long before Ann realized something else too, that in the midst of the pandemic, some customers saw her and her colleagues not as fellow human beings but as vectors of disease.
ANN LARSON: One day a man and his wife came through and he was buying a lot of stuff. I was checking him through. There was a bagger who was bagging on my lane. She’s an elderly woman, about 80 years old. We’re just doing our job like we do hundreds of times a day. I’m checking the groceries and the bagger’s bagging them. And the man was getting increasingly agitated, especially towards the bagger and her attempt to put his items into bags and then into his cart. And at one point he stopped and yelled at her and said, “Stop touching my groceries.” The bagger, this is the 500th time that day that she’s done this and she sort of stopped and looked and was kind of confused, but then just continued to bag. And then he said it again, “Stop touching my groceries.” And she finally got the message and walked away in frustration. And the man turned to me and said, “You know we’re in the middle of a pandemic?”
And I just thought, and I’m sitting here behind plexiglass to protect me and you, to protect both of us from this virus. I’ve got gloves on. I’m wearing a mask, so are you. The entire city is shut down in many ways. Of course, you think you have to remind me that we’re in a pandemic. I work in a grocery store. You just shop in it.
RAY SUAREZ: You can hear the frustration in Ann’s voice. She was struck early in the pandemic by all the articles advising shoppers on how to stay safe. The instructions were all about having your food delivered or picking it up at curbside, doing everything you could to stay out of stores. Don’t bother looking for articles full of advice for people who make deliveries or stock shelves or work a register. They aren’t there. Ann would read the advice and know that none of it was written for her and her colleagues, people with no choice but to work inside those stores. But as you can imagine, they have their own coping strategies.
ANN LARSON: There’s quite a bit of joking and trying to make light of situations that are serious. Even during this pandemic, even during, a time when our lives are, are at risk, because we’re going to work, we joke about infecting each other. We get too close, “Watch out, you’re going to give me the Covid” and we laugh.
RAY SUAREZ: As Ann adjusted to the repetition and the exhaustion and the threat of Covid, she also got used to dealing with the range of customers in the store.
ANN LARSON: One of my colleagues, when I first started, joked that our customer base is either homeless people or rich businessmen.
RAY SUAREZ: Joke or not, there are lots of unhoused people living in encampments near the store. Ann and her coworkers know many of them by name. They come in to use the bathroom.
ANN LARSON: Technically, we’re only supposed to give the code to the bathroom out to paying customerx. So those folks who are either unhoused or who just don’t have money, um, don’t have access to the code.
RAY SUAREZ: Instead, they’re forced to wait outside the bathroom so they can catch the door and enter when someone else exits. One day, Ann arrived at work to find out that one of the unhoused people hadn’t been able to get in to the bathroom on time, had dropped his pants and defecated on the floor of the store. The incident was shocking, and exposed a tense divide in the store. Ann and some of her colleagues were sympathetic to the unhoused guy, desperate for a bathroom.
ANN LARSON: We argued that, listen, people have to shit somewhere.
RAY SUAREZ: But others were furious that a colleague had to clean up the mess. Ann says she understood that sentiment too. These daily dramas linger in her unconscious.
ANN LARSON: I dream about the place every night. I’m dreaming about music, about the produce codes, about something that happened, about an angry customer, about something a colleague said, about whether I did a good job, about a mistake that I might have made, about what’s going to happen the next day, anxiety dreams. It constantly colonizes your mind and there’s really no way around it.
During the night shift, we have to lock the place up, lock the doors, make sure the ovens are turned off in the deli. There’s a lot of closing activities. And I frequently dream about forgetting something. I will forget to lock the door; I forget to turn off an oven; I’ll forget to turn off a cash register and then something bad happens as a result, the door’s left open and people come in and ransack the place. Or I leave the money accidentally in my cash register and somebody steals it.
RAY SUAREZ: It’s not surprising Ann dreams about people stealing stuff. She says not a day goes by that someone isn’t caught shoplifting. Some of Ann’s colleagues have turned it into a sport.
ANN LARSON: They enjoy keeping an eye out for thieves. They enjoy catching people in the act. They take pleasure in alerting security guards to the presence of somebody who looks suspicious.
RAY SUAREZ: The hunt doesn’t sit right with Ann. Not with a hunger crisis and a housing crisis all around us.
ANN LARSON: And it’s not that I think that shoplifters should be allowed to shoplift, but those that work in my store have much more in common with shoplifters who are hungry than we do with the corporate owners that own our store and that want us to stop shoplifters.
RAY SUAREZ: For Ann, “the pandemic laid bare the American class system,” she says, including the way the affluent shopper distances himself from the worker, the way the worker distances herself from the unhoused person or the shoplifter, and the system that perpetuates it all making essential workers invisible.
ANN LARSON: I think there’s a class blindness that makes it nearly impossible for us to see the other person who’s doing that work and to regard them as another human being like us. We don’t want to know how hard that is, how much they’re suffering, how low their wages are.
RAY SUAREZ: Ann is convinced if more of us had to trade places, the world would be better for it.
ANN LARSON: What would it look like for that man in the business suit who comes in his SUV and loads up with groceries or who orders them online and has somebody deliver them? What if he had to work in the grocery store in order for us to have a grocery store during the pandemic? What if we actually had a system where, look, everybody needs to shop and we are not going to consign one class of people to that work; we’re going to make sure it’s more broadly shared. I just wonder what kinds of new policies, new changes would be possible if more people saw what this was really like.
RAY SUAREZ: Ann says there are plenty of policies that would make life better for her and her colleagues: higher wages, Medicare for All, student debt relief. But she realized at some point that even if all that came true, we would still be deeply divided by class.
ANN LARSON: Even if we implemented those things, we would still have a society in which some people worked in a grocery store and some people didn’t. Even during a pandemic where grocery store are essential to everyone. So, what would it look like? What would actually be required to give people the experience of working in a place like this, so that we can make sure that if something is essential in society, if something that we all need, we should all participate in producing it and making sure it functions. It shouldn’t just be one group of people.
Well, it’s 10:22 PM and I’m walking home from work. The wind’s picked up, a little bit of rain starting. I’m trying to get home before the clouds open up. I’m very tired. Can’t wait to sit down, rest, take a shower. Tomorrow I have a day off, so I’m looking forward to that, having a whole 24 hours where I don’t have to go anywhere, can stay home, rest, read, do what I want. I’m going to watch a movie, relax, and then the next day I’m working again for five straight days, so days off are great, but you always know the long week’s coming.
RAY SUAREZ: Ann Larson is a writer and grocery store worker. You can read more of her work at economichardship.org. Alissa Quart edited Ann’s essay about working in the store during the pandemic. Alissa, what hooked you about Ann’s piece in the first place?
ALISSA QUART: Well, Ann’s had this combination of being an activist and an intellectual and somebody who was working a low-wage job during Covid that she could really reflect on while living in real time. And for me, that’s like our raison d’être for EHRP in the first place, that the voices of people who are excluded, who are working class, who grew up working poor, but have kind of an expertise about their experience and have innovation that they can offer around it, at the same time. And that double possibility that you don’t have to just have experts who are white-collar or elite technocrats, but instead you get an expert who packs boxes and puts cans on shelves and yet can understand how to make that whole experience more bearable.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk about that call for empathy at the end of her piece. Her stated desire to break through class blindness by, in effect, trading places. And my idealistic self wants to go there with her, but my more realistic self says, well, how’s that going to work?
ALISSA QUART: Y’know, I had this fantasy that, when I read that, first of all, I thought about Trading Places, that 1980s movie, I think with Eddie Murphy and… was it again?
RAY SUAREZ: Dan Aykroyd.
ALISSA QUART: And Dan Aykroyd was a… I think it was a homeless man exchanges places with a ridiculous rich toff.
Speaker 2: Given the right surroundings and encouragement, I’ll bet that that man could run our company as well as your young Winthorpe.
Speaker 3: Are we talking about a wager, Randolph?
ALISSA QUART: And then My Man Godfrey, which was a wonderful film from the 1930s, same deal.
Speaker 4: May I inquire just why you would want to show me to people at the Waldorf Ritz?
Speaker 5: Oh, if you must know, it’s a game, you’ve probably heard about it, a scavenger hunt. If I find a forgotten man first, I win. Is that clear?
Speaker 4: Yes. Quite clear. Shall I wear my tails or come just as I am?
Speaker 5: You needn’t be fresh. Do you want the $5 or don’t you?
ALISSA QUART: It’s a constant trope in cinema and TV, even. There’s a show called Undercover Boss where each episode is about an upper-management person at a big business going undercover as an entry-level person. So, I thought, oh my God, these are the genre versions, but what she’s proposing is a utopian and kind of very powerful version where you’d have, instead of the CEO going as a kind of surveyor to see if the people were putting the packaged goods away properly and handling the cash register properly, they’d be going to experience the difficulty that their lowest-paid employees were experiencing.
RAY SUAREZ: But I wonder, and I thought this through and I tried to think about ways that this could work, if higher-status workers could experience low-wage, low-status work, for themselves, would they come away saying, “Boy, it would be a good thing if we could make the lives of those workers better,” or would they come away saying, “Boy, I’m glad there’s a line between me and them, because I don’t want to work like that, and I don’t want to live like that.”
ALISSA QUART: I mean, probably. I think there’s a problem of empathy; there’s a problem of other minds. I think people from certain class positions can’t imagine the experience of other people, and then even when it’s shown to them directly, they almost want to build the wall higher. I mean, during the pandemic, the average CEO pay rose to 12.7 million, in 2021. And we’re hearing from Ann Larson about being at risk and making, I think she makes 15, which is a dream for many employees to even make $15 an hour. So there’s a vested interest in people at the top keeping their positions and having ironclad hierarchies and boundaries.
RAY SUAREZ: As I was listening to Ann, I wondered what was the more important imperative, making life better for Ann and her coworkers by simply paying them more, or actually thinking about what would make their work lives a little less drudgery, a little less mind-numbing. I think, ah… you know, I worked at a cash register behind a store counter and as a stock clerk for years, and really what I was interested in more than anything was just making more money. I—being a stock clerk is what it is, running a cash register is what it is. And rather than looking for ways to redesign that job, to make it more enlivening, at that point in my life, I just wanted to make more money.
ALISSA QUART: Yeah, I mean, what we’re seeing also as an aftereffect of the pandemic and child care demands and, yeah, stimulus payments, unemployment insurance, is that people are quitting or people are not going back to work when they have jobs like Ann’s. If they feel exploited or they feel like they’re put in danger, that to me is a sign that people are going to do whatever it takes to get paid more. And sanitizing shopping carts, working alongside people with Covid-19, she really does need to be paid more. And at the beginning of the pandemic, there was hazard pay, and now many of these companies have clawed that back. That’s the beginning, though.
RAY SUAREZ: Ann Larson raises a really interesting question. Even if people in the fight for 15 and the fight for better conditions got the things that they’re asking for, better wages, medical care, student debt relief, we’d still have a society, and certainly a workforce, with stark class divides, especially between essential and nonessential workers, which is something the pandemic really taught us. In effect, if you have the money, you can pay to insulate yourself from exposure to some of the dangers in society, um, the box goods delivered to the doorstep by one of the big shipping companies so that you don’t have to go to the store, buying food in a way that means you never have to see that there was actually a pig before there was a pork chop, while meatpacking workers are dying of Covid-19. We were reminded of those workers for a brief moment. Did they change the conversation? Going forward, will we still remember them?
ALISSA QUART: I think that’s right. And I think we need to start deconstructing the language too that’s being used right now. It was used in the height of the pandemic, It’s probably going to be used again because of the Delta strain. “Curbside delivery” is a person, and there’s been a sort of depersonalization, right, where it’s like, oh yeah, it just appears at your curb. And otherwise progressive people are like, “Yeah, that’s a wonderful store, I didn’t even have to interact with anyone!”—which of course means that Ann Larson and Co. are in the store taking all the risk for you, nice progressive shopper, getting your health food.
But one of the ways that I’ve been looking into this sort of transformation would be new models of ownership. One of the ones that seems most appealing, both utopian and sort of practical, is the worker-owned co-op. And we’re seeing more of them—there’s something like 465 worker-owned co-ops now, up 36 percent since 2013. And they’re… What it means is that the employees both run the business and share its ownership. So it’s a taxi driver who gets a share of the profits of the company while driving the taxi; it’s the auto repair person who did ditto; it’s the food service worker who is also an owner. So when the company makes a profit, they get a share; they get to make their own hours; they get to decide how much they’re paid per hour, what their medical benefits look like. And to me, that is a potentially exciting change.
And when I talked to somebody who is a specialist and they said that there’s a tendency for these things to rise up when government is unable to meet the moment. And to me, that seemed very true. I mean, that was true during the pandemic, that was true in certain other times during the ’30s when there was a rise in worker co-ops, during the 1880s, after the Civil War, when there was a rise, especially for black people, for worker co-ops. So I’m wondering, maybe that’s the kind of fix that we need in a time of epic income inequality and where we need more than a check. When we just, when we need a livelihood. Actually meaningful work where people’s rights are being supported economically, but also existentially.
RAY SUAREZ: I guess Jeff Bezos unintentionally reminded us of some of these structures when he basically acknowledged, when he was back down on terra firma, that the workers of Amazon paid for his space flight. And I can only imagine that many of them heard that and said, “Yeah, I sure did.”
ALISSA QUART: Yeah, I mean, I’d love the, I mean, it’s just too good, right? That they’re colonizing space. It’s like the final frontier for inequality is going to be intergalactic. And I think Ann’s story captures these truths, right? These gradations and the surrealism of them. I think that the surrealism that would lead to someone like Jeff Bezos being able to go in space flight and workers during the pandemic getting wild levels of exposure in tight quarters in fulfillment centers, which are really unfulfillment centers, often, right? I think that is surreal and it calls for this kind of writing—and it calls for the kind of dreams that Ann Larson has, these kind of surreal dreams of a CFO, in a sort of Harvard business school case-study fashion, going to work as a checkout person for months at a time. It’s such a surreal topsy-turvy world. Why not?
RAY SUAREZ: Alissa Quart is executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Alissa, thanks a lot.
ALISSA QUART: Thank you, Ray.
RAY SUAREZ: Going for Broke comes to you from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation. Our producer is Jeb Sharp. Mixing and sound design by Tina Tobey Mack. Our executive producers are Alissa Quart and David Wallace. Frank Reynolds is multimedia editor at The Nation. The Nation’s editor is D.D. Guttenplan. I’m Ray Suarez. Thanks for listening. Please tell your friends about us, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit thenation.com/podcasts to learn more. Sign up for EHRPs newsletter at economichardship.org.
Co-published with The Nation.