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Student grocery workers on jobs reopening in Arizona

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With the COVID-19 affecting job availability, many student workers have turned to employment in grocery stores. Courtesy TeroVesalainen, Needpix.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many parts of Wildcat life, but what hasn’t changed is that University of Arizona students are still working hard to support themselves and make the best of a strange situation. 

Many students work at grocery stores, which were one of a few categories of businesses allowed to stay open and keep fairly regular hours while the rest of the state and country went into various forms of lockdown. 

Alfredo Valdez, an undergraduate chemical engineering student, has worked at Costco since 2017. He has worked in the bakery, on the registers, at night and in the food court. Valdez works between 25 and 40 hours each week, depending on his class schedule. 

“I love working there,” Valdez said. “All my coworkers tend to be very joyful. My coworkers are cool and the environment is cool.” 

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When asked how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his work, Valdez discussed struggles in the store as a whole.

“It’s changed a lot,” Valdez said. “There was a whole bunch of tension between coworkers, managers and members. The entire atmosphere changed. My coworkers weren’t pleasant to be around, I wasn’t pleasant to be around. Even now, it lingers because we’re still adjusting to all of the changes.” 

Back in March, Costco instituted many changes in order to ensure the safety of its employees and its customers. Since May 4, everyone in the building must wear a mask, including customers. Up until recently, there was a limit on the number of Costco members that could enter the store at a time. 

Valdez felt that Costco handled in-store precautions well.

“Every store handles [precautions] differently, but at my location, we’re really on top of it,” Valdez said. 

Valdez was also complimentary of the ways in which both Costco and his own managers made sure that he and his coworkers could feel safe and do their jobs successfully and with as little stress as possible. 

“We have a hotline we can call if work is getting to us. Even though the environment is high-stress, in the break rooms we can vent out to each other, hug if we need it. … The managers were very understanding and offered to let employees step back,” Valdez said. “They not only cared about protecting us from corona. If you needed to call off for anxiety or if you weren’t feeling well, you could get leave and call out without penalty.” 

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For Gabby Cioca, a music education student who started working at Sprouts Farmer's Market in April, seeing her coworkers in masks and gloves wasn’t too strange, because she never saw her peers without them. 

“I was introduced to [wearing masks and gloves] when I first started,” Cioca said. “It’s not too weird, what’s funny is that I don’t know what half of my coworkers look like under the masks. It’s just recently that I’ve been able to see them under the masks.” 

Before the UA moved to online classes, shut down the campus and started furloughing employees, Cioca worked with dining services in the Student Union Memorial Center. After campus closed, she couldn’t go into work and get paid. Although the UA provided pay for student workers through the end of the semester, Cioca was still interested in working and applied at Sprouts.

Cioca said one of the hardest parts of working during the height of quarantine is keeping up with the day-to-day changes of what Sprouts customers are and aren’t allowed to purchase. 

“We have a lot of limitations on things,” Cioca said. “When I first started working, you could only buy two of anything. It was hard for people who have big families, they had to go to different stores.” 

This policy has been removed, but other restrictions on purchases have come and gone based on COVID-19 developments. 

“At the beginning of May, there was the scandal about the meat industry and the breakout of COVID there, so we limited our sales of meat to two of each [product] per customer,” Cioca said. 

However, changes in policies would often happen daily and sometimes miscommunications made it hard for the cashiers and Cioca's coworkers to keep up. 

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Both Cioca and Valdez have mixed feelings about the reopening of Arizona, which occurred on May 15 after Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order expired.  

“I don’t think we should’ve opened,” Cioca said. “I don’t think anything should be open. At the same time, I know it’s very hard for local businesses to stay financially structured. So, I don’t blame anyone for wanting to open.” 

Both students said they didn’t see a very large increase in the number of people in their stores and cited the fact that they never closed in the first place as the reason why. 


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