By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

The sound of neighbours clapping outside their homes last March for the frontline heroes of the NHS is now starting to fade into a distant memory.

But the doctors, nurses, porters and other medical staff are still continuing to grapple with the effects of the pandemic. And so also are the workers in supermarkets and other retail stores.

The latter, many of them on low pay, have displayed immense courage in continuing to go to work. The stark reality is they did not have the choice to work from home.

I recently met store worker and trade union member Mary Bell (pictured above) for a coffee in Belfast – with the required socially distanced rules observed.

Mary, a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), said: “When the first lockdown started in March, it was all very rushed and some of my colleagues did panic because of the pandemic. They were not sure about how Covid-19 would spread and worried about having access to adequate protection.

The company who employs me had to hire new staff because some of my colleagues became unwell. Everything was very intense.

Most of the stress at the start of the pandemic was connected to getting adequate PPE. We also had to make sure that customers were observing social distancing rules and wearing masks.

Panic buying at the start of the pandemic was huge, especially the purchase of toilet rolls. It was really stressful trying to get customers to adhere to the one-way shopping system that was put in place.

Some customers got very vocal when asked to observe social distancing rules. Most people now are wearing masks in the store, but at the start, some people were determined not to wear a mask.”

I asked Mary did she and her colleagues see themselves as heroes for continuing to work during the pandemic?

We don’t consider ourselves to be heroes. We are key workers though, doing a key job. We’re definitely on the frontline

No” replied Mary. “We don’t consider ourselves to be heroes. We are key workers though, doing a key job. We’re definitely on the frontline.

Do store workers get the recognition they deserve, I asked.

No, I don’t think they do,” replied Mary. “A lot of my colleagues worked extra hours to support customers. We also have concerns about the Christmas shopping rush and will we have adequate staff to cope with it.”

Mary paid praise to the support of her trade union USDAW during the pandemic. “They are the backbone of support for us. Union reps on the shop floor speak continually to colleagues to hear about their concerns.”

Should store workers be given a bonus for continuing to work through the pandemic?

Yes,” said Mary. “The company I work for is giving us a bonus. But all stores should reward the workers who have went to work on a daily basis during Covid-19.”

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