By: Michelle Poirier

As local grocery stores adopt a variety of measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, some grocery store employees are reporting that they’ve been verbally abused and harassed by frustrated customers.

One local grocery store employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Post that irate customers throw their hands up and swear at her. Others will leave their carts for her to put back if they don’t find the product they are looking for.

“I never knew how horrible people could be until this time,” she said.

Another employee who didn’t want her name printed described how four men tried to bypass the line of shoppers waiting to enter the store. After some pushback, they complied and lined-up. But when told they had to go in one at a time, one of the men cut her off and yelled misogynistic and vulgar words at her before storming off.

She said it’s a regular occurrence to have customers behave rudely, and that people will ignore the one person per household signs and try to bully their way in. She said her store had implemented a walkie talkie system, so employees can access the managers in case customers become abusive.

Warning sign greets customers as they enter store

“We’ve had some bad experiences with a very small amount of customers going into the stores. There was a situation in Guelph where one of our members was spat on by somebody. There have been other stories like that.” said Tim Deelstra, a spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Canada), representing employees of companies like Zehrs, No Frills, Food Basics and Sobeys.

Mr. Deelstra said the public must play a role in protecting grocery workers. If grocery workers become sick, or too stressed out to work, they’re not going to be there to serve the public. “It’s a simple case of self-interest,” he said.

“We strongly encourage customers to act as patiently as they can. We understand it’s frustrating when there are long lines, or if there is a limit of supplies in the store, but we also want to make sure that everybody is safe and secure as they can be,” he said.

Mr. Deelstra said that the UFCW has worked closely with grocery store chains to implement protective measures for employees, including installing plexiglass dividers for cashiers. But it’s up to the public to contain the spread of the virus.

“Customers should take every possible precaution, not only for the workers in the store but for themselves. To make grocery stores as safe as possible,” he said.

That means wearing a mask, if it’s required to do so, selecting one family per household to go grocery shopping, limiting the number of trips to the grocery store, following social distancing protocols and disposing of masks and gloves in the garbage, as some customers are throwing them out in the parking lot.

“It’s not acceptable to throw our garbage on the ground at any time,” he said. “These are pieces of protective equipment that could potentially contain a virus. We should be extra cautious about how we dispose of these things.”

But the problem of angry and inconsiderate customers isn’t going to go away, as grocery stores tackle the thorny issue of whether or not to make face coverings mandatory for their customers.

As of May 4, all Longo’s grocery stores require staff and customers to wear a mask or face covering. T&T stores have also made it mandatory for staff and customers to wear masks. But, so far, grocery stores in Georgina have not followed suit.

Michael Lindemann, general manager of The Queensway Marketplace, said approximately half of their customers are wearing masks. Still, it is up to the staff and customers to decide if they want to wear one.

Natasha Compton, Director of External Communications for Sobeys, said they do supply PPE to their staff, and it is mandatory for staff working in the bakery and deli to wear masks. But, other staff and customers do not have to wear one.

However, masks could eventually become mandatory in grocery stores, as public health officials continue to revise their recommendations and public opinion swings in favour of making masks mandatory. A recent online poll conducted by The Georgina Post showed 71 per cent of more than 1000 respondents want grocery stores to ask their customers to wear masks.

But while there could be a backlash against wearing masks, as we’ve seen in the U.S., it’s important to note that the majority of grocery store customers in Georgina are complying with the COVID-19 measures.

“I do get very nice people who appreciate me, and I appreciate them. And some people notice the signs; I’ll see them split up and one of them goes to wait in the car. I’ll see that, and I appreciate that,” said one grocery store employee.

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