Editor’s Note: We have chosen to print the interviewees words anonymously and be unspecific about their companies and locations to protect their jobs.

REGION — Essential workers in Franklin, Androscoggin and Oxford counties have been performing jobs with a COVID-19 exposure risk since March.

“I feel more nervous that I’m going to be judged than getting the virus,” a Franklin County worker at an independently owned grocery store said, while wearing a tired-looking disposable mask below their nose.

The worker has witnessed customers leave the market, abandoning baskets full of food after voicing their discomfort with the way in which the employee wears their mask.

The worker wears their mask below the nose due to sensory issues, and the owners of the store have made no attempt to offer mask alternatives such as face shields.

In March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defined four levels of worker exposure risk to COVID-19 which are low, medium, high and very high.

The majority of Maine’s 21 retail businesses listed as essential business operations pose medium risk environments which OSHA defines as places that require “contact with the general public (e.g., schools, high-population-density work environments, some high-volume retail settings), including individuals returning from locations with widespread COVID-19 transmission.”

At another Franklin County grocery store, a worker described equally disturbed reactions by customers who may not realize that other patrons or employees weren’t wearing masks due to sensory sensitivities or other issues.

“The biggest change has been the masks,” the Farmington grocery store worker said. “Customers wearing masks are disturbed if other people are not wearing them. If someone has an underlying condition, people don’t need to wear a mask and people don’t understand that.”

In early March, the worker of the independently owned grocery store in Franklin County said they received calls from customers thanking the owners for remaining open during the pandemic.

“Its gotten more tense over six months,” the worker said.

Now, the market receives calls from people complaining that the store does not enforce the proper use of face coverings among staff and patrons.

As outlined in Mills’ most recent executive order, only retail businesses with more than 50,000 sq. ft. of retail space must enforce face coverings among patrons. Some exceptions to this order are eating establishments, bars, tasting rooms, social clubs and lodging operations and accommodations which must require face coverings among all patrons and employees.

Previous executive orders by Mills required specific counties and municipalities – Cumberland, Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Waldo and York counties and the cities of Auburn, Augusta, Bangor – to enforce face coverings among smaller retail establishments.

“We’re not police at the door,” the Franklin County grocery store employee said, who expressed their discomfort with turning customers away if they are not wearing face coverings.

A worker from a Franklin County mom and pop general store voiced similar experiences with regard to customers calling the store to complain.

“At the beginning, when it was first recommended that staff wear masks, one lady who got a sandwich called later to say she was disappointed we weren’t following the mask requirements,” the worker said. “The store is small so it got too hot and stuffy for all workers to wear masks.”

The owner of the store had initially required employees to wear masks, but now allows them to work without face coverings. The worker added that the owner did install a plastic shield at the main counter, but that the store itself is too cramped to practice 6-foot social distancing with customers and fellow employees.

Nonetheless, the worker said they have not been concerned about their safety.

Grocery store workers have also had to deal with a fluctuation in inventory and business.

“A shortage of aluminum made it harder for a time to keep stocks of soda and beer in cans on the shelves, especially Moxie. Most items are back to normal now,” the Farmington grocery store worker said.

The mom and pop general store is still navigating staffing needs with the waves of business it has seen throughout the pandemic.

“Now, there are only two to three people working at a time but that’s not entirely due to the coronavirus,” the general store worker said. “During the stay at home period, there was a drop in business but not now. It’s been busy all through the summer and beyond.”

A postal worker based out of an Androscoggin County location has seen a major influx of business and compared the level of package deliveries to the holiday season. They attributed this increase to more people purchasing items online as a way to avoid shopping in-person.

“Issues from this increase were exasperated by an influx of call outs, resignations and workers granted provisions from our union to take time for childcare or other dependent care,” the postal worker said. “The expectations and workload of all workers at the USPS has increased due to these issues.”

The postal worker said that package volume has leveled out more recently, but the ricocheting effects of the pandemic have made them contemplate quitting a number of times in the past seven months.

“The only thing that kept me going through the package influx was the fact that the job market was largely destroyed during the initial shutdown and postal employees, while made to work for it, do benefit from a higher wage than private sector workers in the same industry,” the postal worker said.

An additional stress factor was the delay in receiving Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which postal workers are not required to use and few do, according to the worker.

With regard to federal funding cuts to the USPS, the worker said this has not impacted them directly, at least not yet.

“The lack of federal funding has not affected my daily work as of yet, but has put the service into a precarious position which may result in many changes,” the worker said. “We are already seeing this with recent attempted initiatives from postal management to restructure the service to make operations more viable at the expense of workers and the American public. However, the postal service has been mismanaged and on trajectory to its own destruction for decades … the pandemic only made this process develop more rapidly.”

At another post office in rural Oxford county, postal customers are regularly seen coming and going without wearing face coverings and tend to linger in conversation. The clerk working behind the counter was not wearing a mask either. When asked about it they shrugged.

“They’re [the USPS] pretty much leaving it up to us,” they said. “It’s usually pretty quiet. I’ve got this Plexi barrier.”

Within a few weeks, an outbreak at a nearby business occurred and the community zoomed from going from no reported COVID-19 cases to 11. Still, workers and patrons alike at the post office seemed unfazed.

“I think we will be okay,” said a different clerk. “I don’t think many have gotten sick.”

One grocery worker, who has left their job at a grocery chain, expressed frustration with the communication from both store and corporate management, especially in the handling of information regarding employees who became ill with COVID-19.

“The first case, most people found out about it on the news,” said the worker. “Employees asked their supervisors why no one was told, and the explanation was that only the people who had direct contact with the sick worker had been told, and that not all departments/employees were exposed.”

“They said the store had been cleaned overnight. It reopened as usual the next day. But all employees share common areas like the break room, rest rooms and time clock. We were all exposed.”

Later on the grocery worker learned who the infected employee was from a customer.

“It was a person that I had regular contact with on the job,” they said. “I was disturbed that they didn’t think I should be informed. They did not act to ensure my safety.

“When the second person was sick, supervisors announced it to all employees. One person had to leave as soon as they found out, they live with immune-compromised people and had to go into self-quarantine for two weeks. But the company is not providing assistance to people who have been exposed to COVID and have to miss work for their families’ safety.”

The grocery worker said that through the first weeks of the pandemic, Maine employees were not given much information. Store management would not take precautionary measures unless directed by the corporate office.

At first it was not mandatory to wear masks. Then the company distributed face shields and disposable masks to all employees. Then everyone had to return the shields because they were found to not be as effective. Once face coverings were required, employees were provided with a cloth logo mask.

Procedures were put into place to improve safety. Floor stickers and signs were added, people were counted going in the store and customers had to form one line to enter the cash register area in the same direction. But, the grocery worker saw precautions lapse as state guidelines became looser.

“One of the first things they changed was special early shopping hours for the elderly and at risk,” said the worker. “Then, Plexiglas barriers were added over time, first at the registers and then for the baggers.

“At first management was adamant about cleaning and sanitizing. But after summer it seemed to become more lax.”

The worker said that in the beginning customers were not understanding or patient about the changes the store had to make.

“At first lots of people were nasty and rude,” they said. “You could tell they were scared, but they did not recognize the risks that workers were facing every day. It was the worst at the front end of the store, but it did get better over time.

“The store began offering curbside pick-up and the customers who shopped that way were much more grateful. But they didn’t understand how it worked.”

Online shoppers believed if they ordered something one day they would automatically get what they wanted. But by the time their order was filled a few days later it might be sold out. Placing an order was no guarantee of getting that item, which created misunderstandings that store employees had to continually explain.

“Just sometimes people were so rude,” the employee said. “One man asked a co-worker wearing a shield if she felt like a dog wearing a collar as he passed her. At first she thought maybe she didn’t hear him right but later she realized he was just being nasty.

“One customer made me cry. We are supposed to socially distance and I asked him to step back in line to the circle on the floor. As he left, he told me I needed psychological help. I started to cry, I had to ask someone to come take my place to go in the bathroom.”

Management above all did not want to ruffle customers’ feathers. The store worker was frustrated that supervisors did not really act or respond when customers treated staff poorly.

“It made us feel like we weren’t really valued,” they said. “At first we were getting COVID pay – part-timers got a dollar more an hour and full-timers got two. When part-time people complained, they made it even, but we only got that extra pay for a couple months.

“Then they said we would be getting bonuses, but again, the part-time employees only got half of what the full-time people got.”

A lot of people quit because they didn’t feel safe, the store worker said, adding that most of the stress was on check-out employees. The other departments weren’t as exposed. Fed up when the number of cases began rising again this fall, the worker also ended up quitting. The worker said they feel lucky they were able to find a full time job that provides benefits.

“It’s a longer drive for me but it’s good,” they said.

Tough at the beginning, but easier now is how life has been at grocery store in Oxford County. No matter the circumstances, the managers and employees have powered through it.

The store is currently in a lull, the first in months, which has resulted in a less stressful work environment for employees. However, the manager knows that the slow period will be short-lived with ski season approaching fast.

“At the start, we were busy, but had very limited product,” the manager said. “We finally started getting more groceries back.”

Keeping items in stock was one of their biggest challenges – arguably equally as challenging was trying to make customers understand why a certain product was not available.

“We tried to stock the store as much as we could,” the manager said.

They admitted, though, that store still does not have as much product as they’d like.

Every area of the store, whether meat, dairy or cleaning supplies, was limited or out of something at one point or another. Many of those supplies have returned, but the manager said that certain cleaning supplies may not return to the shelves until next year.

Most shoppers have become accustomed to the store missing a few items on their list, a positive for both employees and management. Unfortunately, when it has come to mask-wearing, people have not been as cooperative.

“People were a lot nicer about wearing them in the beginning, now they are not so nice about it,” a manager said.

“They are over the mask wearing and we can’t be. We do not have a choice,” another manager added.

As attitudes toward masks worsened, the effect on employees became more severe.

“It was emotionally draining. We all had our rock-bottom days. From worrying about each other to worrying about someone at home, but we all kept coming in,” a manager said.

Masking is mandatory for employees, but they cannot force customers to wear them, and a manager said that having workers ask customers to wear a mask has sometimes led to heated behavior. They emphasized that the safety of their customers will always come first.

“I have had employees come to me saying I don’t want to fight with this person, I’m scared.”

A manager said customers have called them “spineless,” and said they’ve received harsher insults on social media.

Adding to the stress, one of the manager’s spouse is currently fighting Leukemia, another thing on their mind each day as they come to work. Their father is also 81, another worry.

“Everyone here has someone at home with an underlying disease. We just want to be safe,” they said. “We’re not going to be reckless. This is about going home to our loved ones at night.”

Ugly encounters and harsh words aside, they estimated 95 percent of shoppers wear masks.

Employees have proven how essential they are to their managers.

A few employees opted for unemployment, but the majority continued to work.

“The help has been great. We’ve been together through thick and thin,” a manager said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better than the ones that stuck it out with us.”

“They have been incredible. We couldn’t ask for anything more,” the other manager said.

Also in Oxford County, an EMT, said their department has persevered despite all the major obstacles COVID-19 has presented – and there have been many.

The first few months were the toughest for providers, both professionally and personally. Potential exposure was a major concern for workers, both for their own safety and for family members at home. Another major adjustment has been everyday work life. They said constant masking and working at distances has been challenging for employees, who are, they said, a “tight knit” group of people.

The stress level has been steady, with COVID-19 protocol changing constantly on patient care and personal PPE.

“Ever changing safety protocols have also been a bit of a disruption,” they said. “Constantly trying to stay on top of what PPE is to be used and when has been frustrating as well.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, protocols in hospitals could change multiple times a day, according to the EMT. When it came to PPE, there was a shortage on sani-wipes, gloves, N95 masks, gowns, surgical masks and Cavicide Liquid used to decontaminate the trucks and equipment, at one point or another. This meant family members of patients were unable to accompany them to the emergency room or visit them at the hospital.

The EMT explained that having family there with the patient is important because they often provide medical information or history on the patient if the patient is unable to do so. The PPE shortage also led to fewer providers having patient contact.

Another area that took a hit was staffing. School and daycare closures forced some workers to take unexpected time off to care for their children. Luckily, only a few workers have had to take extended leaves of absences.

Since education and training courses were also canceled, soon-to-be-providers were left at the halfway point of their training, but with no chances to get the required ride time to license or end test, according to the EMT.

“We are very fortunate to live and work in this community,” they said. “We’ve had meals donated for crew members early on in the pandemic, when restaurants and stores were closed, as well as, private citizens make and donate cloth masks for our crews to wear while in the station. We appreciate all the love and support each and every day.”

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