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Front-line employees caught between desire for safety and the need to work

  • Raeanne Boule, of Royalton, cleans one of the plexiglass shields that have been added since the start of the pandemic to protect cashiers at Maplewoods, where she is assistant manager, in Royalton, Vt., Wednesday, April 1, 2020. “When I go home to my kids, I cry sometimes,” said Boule, who showers and launders her clothes promptly upon arriving home each day. “I can’t afford to just be at home.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley NEws photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Sarah Masterson, of Hartland, left, who drives for Lyft and Grubhub, asks VA employee Linda Mountain for help finding a customer who ordered a sandwich at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, April 4, 2020. The customer had told Masterson to bring the order into the building, but she did not want to leave her car, and Mountain, who was screening everyone entering for COVID-19 symptoms, did not want her to enter either. The customer eventually came out to retreive his order. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Michael Rogers, of Canaan, gathers an armload of coolers and boxes used to transport medical specimens before leaving on his route for North Country Medical Couriers in Enfield, N.H., Thursday, April 2, 2020. The company’s drivers cover about 1,200 miles over seven routes each day transporting medical samples, including COVID-19 swabs, for testing. “I’m a germophobe as it is,” said Rogers, who said he regularly washes and sanitizes his hands and does not eat in his car while working. “I’m taking it pretty seriously, that’s for sure.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Jeremy Darling, of Royalton, cleans the restrooms at Maplewoods in Royalton, Vt., every hour while on his part-time shift, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. He also works part-time at Jockey Hollow, a deli inside the gas station and convenience store. “As long as we do what we’re supposed to, I’m comfortable. We try to make it so we’re always clean,” he said of his work. “Fear man - that’s what’s going to stop Vermont from moving forward.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley NEws — James M. Patterson

  • Ron Skorstad, of Danville, Vt., pays Florence Prevost, left, at North Country Medical Couriers in Enfield, N.H., for a cooler-full of dry ice to ship frozen cuts of meat from his daughter’s farm Thursday, April 2, 2020. In addition to keeping the medical specimens they transport at the proper temperature, the company sells dry ice to customers like Skorstad. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Bub Quimby, of North Country Medical Couriers, answers screening questions asked by Linda Mountain, right, before entering the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., to pick up medical specimens Thursday, April 2, 2020. “Most of us that do this job kind of take it to heart whether it’s the crisis or not,” said Quimby. “To me, it’s not just a job. I feel like I’m actually doing something that matters.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/11/2020 9:21:48 PM
Modified: 4/11/2020 9:21:46 PM

When she gets home from work at the Maplewood Convenience Store in Royalton, Raeanne Boule disrobes, sprays her clothes with Lysol and puts them in a plastic bag, then takes a shower.

Only then does she greet her children. What she fears most about the novel coronavirus outbreak is that her kids might get it. If she could afford to stay home with her three children, she would.

Her next greatest fear is that the convenience store might be declared nonessential, that it would have to close down and leave her out of work.

“I still need to work,” Boule said in a recent phone interview. “If I had to go on unemployment, they wouldn’t pay me half of what I’m making now.”

Unemployment would kick in only if Boule was laid off or the store was shut down. If she chose to take time off to self-isolate, her income would take an even bigger hit.

Boule’s situation illustrates the double bind that many “essential” workers find themselves in. For their health, they’d prefer to stay home, but going to work and bringing home a paycheck, even if it means dealing with a sometimes still heedless public, is a must. And there’s a second dynamic at work: For many workers in service jobs, being considered essential is a welcome recognition that their jobs play a more central role in daily life than many people give them credit for, even as it puts them in harm’s way.

“On one hand, they’re lucky to have a job,” said Merilynn Bourne, the former longtime director of Listen Community Services in Lebanon. It spares them from the “nightmare of filing for unemployment,” she said.

At the same time, as the peak of the epidemic nears, “the fear factor is reaching its peak, too.”

Right now, Boule is working more hours than usual to make up for employees who are staying home. In a recent week, she worked more than 65 hours. The store is open for 109 hours a week.

“I’ve been trying to talk them into staying open later,” Boule said. People have been knocking on the door at 9:15 at night, just after closing time. The store sells such staples as milk, bread and eggs, in addition to chips and other convenience foods.

Most patrons are good about getting what they need quickly and keeping their distance, but others still wander around the store, or come in for items that might not seem necessary — lottery tickets, for example.

Workers in other fields might feel safe enough to do their jobs, but that doesn’t mean they are without concern.

“I really worry about asymptomatic people,” said Bobbi Lynds, who owns North Country Medical Couriers, an Enfield-based business that runs established routes among hospitals in Vermont and New Hampshire. She and the company’s 15 other drivers typically pick up items from lockboxes, rather than taking them directly from the hands of medical personnel, so maintaining distance from hospital workers hasn’t been a problem. But other issues remain.

“I noticed last week coming into our workroom, it’s really hard to stay 6 feet away from people,” Lynds said.

It would be impossible to know if an employee might have picked up the virus, she said. She has recommended that everyone wear masks, but hasn’t insisted on it. She’s trying to keep the number of people in the company’s workroom to three.

“Any place where people are is not a safe spot,” she said.

She described a trip in late March to the Lebanon Price Chopper. There were no shields between cashiers and patrons, and no one was wearing masks.

“I’d just like to see companies trying to protect their front-line workers,” Lynds said.

She works another job in health care as well, involving waste management.

“We’re kind of on the bottom of the food chain for health care workers,” she said, noting that to do any job, you have to have skills particular to that job.

In a news release on Friday afternoon, Price Chopper President and CEO Scott Grimmett called on the governors of the six Northeast states where the grocery chain operates to help secure “consistent supplies” of personal protective equipment for workers, especially face masks. The company also said it had installed plexiglass shields at registers in recent weeks and provided face shields to workers who want to wear them.

One measure of the discomfort among workers dealing with the public is how many of them step away if granted paid time off. Eight of the South Royalton Market’s 24 staff members took the small co-op up on its offer of paid leave, said Adam Smith, the market’s manager. Several of them came back to work when the market moved to curbside pickup on March 24.

“Some of them wanted to save the paid leave in case they got sick later on,” Smith said in a phone interview.

Stores in the Upper Valley have taken steps to protect workers and patrons, with lines of tape laid out on the floor and store aisles turned into one-way streets to keep people apart. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s executive order on March 25, an addendum to his March 13 order that Vermonters should stay home, tells retail operations such as grocery stores, pharmacies and feed stores that they are allowed to stay open so long as business is “conducted through online and telephone orders for delivery and curb-side pickup to the extent possible.”

For the most part, the stores that have gone to curbside pickup are smaller markets. Market Basket, which has stores in Claremont and Warner, N.H., now limits the number of people in the store in an effort to maintain social distancing.

“Some of my employees have gone to other stores and felt that they weren’t taking it very seriously,” Smith said.

Sally Page has worked at the Co-op Food Store in Hanover for 25 years, having started as a job coach leading a crew of developmentally disabled workers. She restocks paper goods, which was “a little disheartening for a while when people were hoarding paper,” she said in a phone interview.

She said she’s following guidelines originally set out for store workers, such as washing her hands frequently, not touching her face and keeping her distance from other people.

“I don’t feel unsafe at all,” she said, adding that “at 80, I don’t count on being around much longer anyway.”

A manager spoke to her and another senior co-worker when the coronavirus crisis was new and said, “We will understand if you decide not to come to work,” Page said.

“We just laughed,” Page said.

Page typically works from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or so. The social interaction is more important to her than the pay. She calls herself “an aisle therapist,” who regularly talks with longtime patrons. She’s a lifelong Hanover resident.

“There’s a part of me that feels that there’s really a responsibility to help people feel connected,” she said, adding that both the store and patrons are treating employees well.

Other workers said they feel a sense of responsibility to customers, but they would like it if the public exhibited the same sense of responsibility toward them.

“It’s really scary, I would say,” said Robyn Ryder, who has been a cashier at the Co-op Food Store in White River Junction for 2½ years. “At first, not very many people took it seriously.”

Now, many people wear masks and gloves while shopping. The store has put up plexiglass screens between patrons and cashiers, and then extended those screens.

Even so, many shoppers seem unconcerned about the coronavirus and more intent on their daily routines. Stores recommend stocking up and staying home, but some shoppers still come in every day.

“We have to depend on people taking care of themselves to keep us safe,” Ryder said.

For the most part, though, her colleagues continue to come to work. Ryder, 29, is bringing home the only income in her household. Her partner’s job, on the technical staff at Northern Stage, is on hold. Northern Stage provides their housing and isn’t charging rent for the time being.

“I have definitely thought that I do not want to be at work,” Ryder said, adding, “I do feel as though I could be exposed at any minute.”

As she and her colleagues continue to work, Ryder had one request of the public: Be nice. Don’t complain that the store doesn’t have what you want or about the precautions that employees are taking.

“Our job is way more stressful than it was before,” she said. “It just feels like we don’t matter over their convenience.”

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