COOS BAY — The slogan hanging by the McKay’s Market sign has never been more fitting: essential everyday.
While that particular sign has been up for a long time at the local grocery store, it has taken on new meaning during a global pandemic. As everyday life around the country and state were drastically altered, grocery store employees were more important than ever.
“It’s been a little bit hectic for us but we’ve been able to manage. It, in a way, made us come together as a team and just to understand that it’s mostly about giving to our community, being there for our community. Rather than just worrying about just ourselves as a whole,” said Christa Gibson, a manager at McKay’s in Coos Bay.
Like most stores, McKay’s looks a little different than it did three months ago. There are now marks on the ground showing customers where to stand; plexiglass between checkers and customers; employees ensure carts and other surfaces are sanitized; all employees are wearing gloves and masks; there is a hand sanitizer station at the entrance and exit.
But as much as the store has changed, so to have the attitudes of many shoppers.
“When I first started it was more like disrespectful customers, customers didn’t care, didn’t treat you like a human being. Now, they treat us like we’re heroes in a way,” said Gibson. “It’s kind of a weird thing to me but it’s been really nice to be respected. Once they realized that they actually have to have us, you know for the world to keep moving along and to keep running, we’re more than just people that work in a grocery store.”
Store manager Chris Bemetz has seen a similar reaction to those who come in and shop.
“People appreciate us now. Before we were like, oh, whatever. You’re whatever,” he said. “Firefighters and police officers, I’ve always put them up there as first responders they put their lives at risk. And now it’s like, we’re kind of being roped into that, too. It’s like, really? Really? Are you serious? Yeah, it’s nice to be appreciated but it’s really stressful.”
One stressor for Bemetz has been going home to his family each night. Now his routine includes going home, putting his work clothes in the laundry before immediately taking a shower. With all employees facing similar burdens, McKay’s has given workers a $2 per hour raise.
“My employees have all been good. They’ve jumped in, if there are extra hours they’re doing it and putting in the effort. I commend them. They’ve stepped up and they’ve met the call, they really have,” said Bemetz. “They want to make sure the community is taken care of, they’re safe and they’re getting their products that they need to eat.”
For Gibson, one stressful element of this all is that she has asthma. Because of this, her mom encouraged her to stay home from work but she insisted on putting herself at potential risk by continuing to work.
“Doing something that I love for my community and something that drives me to work hard everyday, it doesn’t matter what obstacles, even disease obstacles, that I have to jump to get there. I have to be there for my workers, for my team, for my boss,” she said.