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In a Hungry City on Pause, Grocery Workers Take Stock and Press On

Manager Juan Martinez at Compare Foods in Ozone Park, on March 24, 2020.
Manager Juan Martinez at Compare Foods in Ozone Park, on March 24, 2020. Photo: Trone Dowd/THE CITY

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Juan Martinez, 38, finds himself an unlikely soldier on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City.

He manages the Compare Foods in Ozone Park, Queens, a relatively small grocery store compared to local competitors like Key Food and Stop & Shop, located under the cacophonous Rockaway Blvd A-train stop.

At a time when most city residents are adhering to state orders to stay home, Martinez is one of nearly 63,000 grocery and convenience store employees in the city — at least 70% of whom were still working last week, according to the mayor’s office.

A Noticeable Shift

Providing food and other essentials during the coronavirus crisis has given grocery workers a unique look at how New Yorkers are reacting to the outbreak, Martinez said. And while his store has seen increased foot traffic this month, he can pinpoint the seismic shift in business.

“It was Thursday, the 12th of March,” he said. “That’s when it got real for us.”

That’s when Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a citywide state of emergency. That was the day long lines stretching down food aisles and wrapping back around the candy shelves by checkout became the new normal.

“People were buying three times as much as they normally do,” he said, noting that customers rushed to the store to stock up on meats, vegetables, nonperishables and toiletries. “From then on, it seemed like every time [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo made an announcement, we could safely expect a rush of customers.”

Workers help stock Ozone Park-based Compare Foods.
Workers help stock Ozone Park-based Compare Foods. Photo: Trone Dowd/THE CITY

Of the 13 workers that the store employs, Martinez says that about 30% of them have been out over the past  week.

“People are scared. Employees that were here just the day before, jumping and active and in high spirits, are calling in the next day saying they can’t get up,” he said. “You know, you have your suspicions of how this could be possible, but you know, what can you do, really?”

To make up the difference, the store has called more regularly on a few of its part-time workers, one of whom was recently laid off by his other job following the city’s orders to shut down all nonessential businesses.

Adapting The Business

Nearly every aspect of how the store operates has been affected. For one, shift changes have doubled as cleaning time for the store.

“Every cashier at the end of their work day has to clean their workstation,” Martinez explained. “We’re using Lysol and other disinfectants. This is more than just trying to keep things nice and neat as we usually do. We’re trying to keep germs away from the surfaces that employees and customers regularly come in contact with.”

Cashiers have been wearing gloves and masks to help protect themselves. Shopping carts and food baskets are being hosed and wiped down. And interactions among employees have been limited, adhering to federal recommendations about social distancing, Martinez said.

Employees who stock the shelves work newly staggered hours so they can go home early on less busy days and conserve their energy for when the store expects bigger, more substantial shipments.

The store’s delivery services have been cancelled altogether.

“If you come to a store and you shop, we can definitely help take your purchases back to your place,” Martinez said. “But taking orders over the phone and online we had to stop for now, due to the shortage of workers.”

‘No Games’

A married father of two, Martinez told THE CITY that he’s grateful that he’s still working.

“Some people have lost their jobs or are stuck at home without pay, and they have families to support and mouths to feed,” Martinez said. “At least we get to pay our bills and keep our jobs while the city figures this all out.”

He said that his family, particularly his wife, has been extra vigilant about what he brings home after a long day at work.

“As soon as I come home, I have to take off my work shoes, change out of these clothes, she tosses them in the washer and I have to hop directly into the shower before I can get to the kids,” he laughed. “She’s been playing no games.”

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