Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Culture > News

Minimum Wage Heroes: Conversations With Those Still Working During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Toronto MU chapter.

As COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, crowds dispersed and streets emptied as a looming sheet of anxiety suffocated the nation. People began stockpiling their shelves with food, storing items like scavenging squirrels. Even the air outside feels uneasy. Every passing stranger walks by quickly with hostility and fear. 

In a state of panic, anything could happen. Ordinary workers grocery workers have witnessed crowds at their workplace causing a scene, not much different than the dramatic videos of people fighting over toilet paper in viral videos. Stressed and impatient customers, and sometimes no customers at all. The question is: how are minimum wage workers dealing with these difficult situations?

Ava Anderson, who has been working as a cashier at the grocery store Food Basics, admits that the last few weeks have been incredibly difficult. Even the customers were “on edge.” They wore masks and gloves and tried not to touch the cash belt or buttons. Normally, people buy what they need for one week’s time but recently, this has changed. “Everyone has been stockpiling and buying copious amounts of food and cleaning supplies,” Anderson said. “There was an order I had last week that was around $540 and was three carts full.”

The routines at this grocery store have also intensified. “We have been cleaning and wiping our cash register almost every half an hour, as opposed to our normal routine, which is every five hours or so,” she said. “We’ve been instructed to wash our hands more frequently and clean whenever we have the chance. Between the extra staff and all the customers, there is not a moment of peace, and [workers] are constantly moving.” 

Anderson thinks this panic-buying phenomenon is “excessive.” She’s concerned about the customers who will have no more ‘staple-foods’ to eat, like bread, milk, and fruits. “All the panic I am seeing from other people has me more worried than the actual virus at this point,” she said.    

Tiana Driscoll, line cook and hot bar cook prepares buffet-style trays at the grocery store Farm Boy. She feels her job has become out of control, and notes some workers are refusing to show up, causing others to work more hours. Driscoll feels this is unsafe during the province-wide lockdown. “I can’t explain it but there’s such a weird energy knowing that every single person in the room has the same thing on their mind,” Driscoll says. 

If the current situation is so unsafe, why are these employees still clocking in? The answer is simple, they can’t afford not to. Driscoll is persisting through the mayhem because it is her only source of income. 

Still, she isn’t as worried about her own health as she is for her stepmom, who has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that could make any flu deadly. Driscoll and her stepmother live in the same household. “We were just advised of the new hygiene measures we had to take,” Driscoll said about her workplace. “But no one has discussed the high potential of our staff possibly obtaining the virus.”

Alan Liu, a cook at boba tea store Meet Fresh, said their store protocol is the same, but now they wear masks. He fears however he may lose his job because of the steep decline in customers.

With grocery stores overloading and restaurants empty, many are left wondering how other places are doing. Dalia Naaman works at Children’s Place, and says their clothing store is practically empty and employees are struggling to cover shifts. Most customers that enter the store are usually doing a return only, if they come in at all. 

The shop is also running low on supplies. “We are running out of paper towels and hand sanitizers and when we went to order more, it was all sold out,” she said. A lot of Naaman’s co-workers have children but are receiving less weekly hours, and are finding it difficult to provide for their families.

Meanwhile, Kirsten Rowe has been working at the Cineplex Yonge-Dundas location for three years. “So far we’ve had to increase cleaning procedures such as wiping down counters, tills and pin pads every 20 mins, detail cleaning every theatre between shows, and more cleans in the washrooms,” she said. 

Many customers asked if Rowe was worried about catching the virus, since she is in such close contact with many people. Rowe would admit she’s more worried that they’ll close the theatre and she will have no income for the next few weeks. Unfortunately, this worry became reality when on March 16, Cineplex announced it would be closing all locations until April 2. 

With the world at large still in panic, these people and many more, all continue to work while COVID-19 is an invisible threat to their jobs, their lives, and the lives of loved ones. Through their stories, we are able to gain empathy. It is important to remember that though many of us are isolated, we must still have compassion. 

The virus will pass, but until then, many will continue to serve the world despite the dangers. 

Ruisi Liu

Toronto MU '23

Ruisi Liu is a film student at Ryerson from Ottawa who enjoys drawing and binge eating thai express shrimp rolls (the rice paper wrapped ones). She also watches too many philosophy and Vox docs on YouTube. Instagram: @ruisi.liu
Sarah is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University. As Ryerson's Campus Correspondent, Sarah is a self-proclaimed grammar nerd. In her spare time, Sarah is either buried in a book, trying to figure out how to be a functioning adult, or enjoying a glass of wine - hopefully all at once.