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Customer service

Facing long hours and angry customers, some Christian employees in grocery stores try to be examples of encouragement and calm amid a pandemic

Jennie Higgins is a 62-year-old employee at a Costco store near Houston, Texas, where she assists customers in the clothing section. Her husband, Randy, drives trucks to deliver stock to other Costco locations. The couple have worked for the retailer for years, but now, Jennie Higgins said, “We’re considered essential people.”

In March, Randy worked six days a week, and drivers doubled their loads to meet demand. Meanwhile, Jennie said, she has experienced a range of emotions “from unbelievable to just frightening,” never knowing what she’ll face at work: the coronavirus or angry, scared customers. 

Grocery workers are facing pressure from long hours, upset customers, and the threat of the coronavirus. But amid the challenges, some Christian employees say they are serving others by listening, encouraging, or just remaining calm.

On March 26, Costco announced reduced hours at its U.S. locations: Stores would close at 6:30 p.m. on weeknights. The stores are rationing some quick-selling items, and food courts now offer a limited menu and no seating. Costco locations around the country are reporting COVID-19 cases among their employees. Some have added sneeze guards at the registers and provided “hazard pay” for employees who work with customers.

The warehouse retailer has been overrun in recent weeks, but Chip Lind, an optician at a Costco near Seattle, said the company has cared well for employees. When his store closed the optical department, it offered him work on the warehouse side, checking out customers or assisting cashiers. Lind, a nine-year Costco employee, said the work is mundane, but he’s thankful to have a job. His store has limited the number of shoppers allowed in the building at once: Before that, Lind said, “fights were breaking out every day,” as customers competed for the last of certain products. Police sent officers to stand at the Costco doors. 

“I’ve prayed that God would allow me to be a light in an unusually difficult situation.”​

Lind, in his late 50s, sees his non-Christian co-workers responding to the virus fearfully. He said those who  resist fear and keep good attitudes stand out. He and his Christian co-workers quote Bible verses to each other during their shifts and sometimes sing worship songs between customers at the registers. Lind said co-workers see him reading his Bible in the break room and ask about it, and he encourages them to read the Psalms when pandemic anxiety keeps them from sleep. 

As a Christian, Jennie Higgins said, “I’ve prayed that God would allow me to be a light in an unusually difficult situation.” Sometimes angry customers direct their frustration toward her. When that happens, she said, she listens and acknowledges how difficult the situation is. Often people are surprised she cares, and thank her for listening. She also tries to encourage co-workers: One told her, “This place has been like a dark cloud, and I have seen who you are in this, and it means a lot to me.”

“I had no idea that just being kind and asking questions about his life would change his life so much,” Higgins said.

H-E-B grocery stores in Texas have placed tape on the floor to remind customers to keep 6 feet of social distancing. Employees give customers wipes for cart handles and point them to hand sanitizing stations.

Bonita Brant has worked at an H-E-B near Austin for 2½ years. Brant leads the team that provides in-store food demos, but two weeks after the coronavirus hit Austin, her store canceled the demos. Brant and her team took on other tasks, from sanitizing surfaces to bagging groceries to working in the store’s backlogged curbside pickup program. The store began rerouting customer foot traffic to reduce shoplifting and set product limits to reduce hoarding. “You could look at people and see the anxiousness on their faces,” Brant said. “I’m thinking, ‘Calm down, people. God is in control.’”

High-school junior Mason McGuire works as a bagger and parking lot attendant at another H-E-B store near Austin. He said the first week after the coronavirus reached the area was “insane.” Crowds of customers emptied whole shelves before 11 a.m. Managers worked quickly to keep the chaos under control.

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A Costco shopper stocks up on supplies. (Getty Images)

Some days, the customers seem aware of employees’ efforts and thank them. Other days, they seem fearful and hostile. Once when McGuire was bagging groceries around closing time, a customer became angry at the cashier. When the cashier stepped away to get a manager’s help, the customer began yelling and cursing at her. McGuire stepped back and waited for things to calm down.

As a Christian, McGuire said he tries to help and support the cashiers while being gentle and thanking the customers. “There is an upped pressure on us right now to keep everyone safe, and it weighs on you,” he said. 

But at the same time, the drain he and his co-workers felt during the first week of the virus in Austin has lifted. Now he said they are staying calm and “just doing our job.”