In March, Christopher Dybash, a food and beverage manager at the Apparatus Room in downtown Detroit, was abruptly laid off from his job. Dybash had worked at the restaurant inside the tony, boutique Detroit Foundation Hotel since 2018, just down the street from TCF Center. “I’ve been somebody who’s consistently worked my entire life, so it was a jarring situation for me to essentially lose my job indefinitely,” he says. Dybash took a week to mourn the loss of his job before attempting to find work at one of the few places that was still hiring workers during the pandemic: the grocery store.
He now counts himself among an unknown number of food service workers who’ve transitioned from the restaurant world to grocery stores. Grocery stores, and other establishments that supply food, are considered an essential service under Michigan’s stay-at-home executive order, but jobs at these stores also place workers at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Each day, grocery workers have to choose between their health and earning a paycheck. Many do not have insurance through their workplaces, and stores are offering little, if any, hazard pay.
Dybash is a clerk at Plum Market, where he works doing a variety of jobs from collecting and sanitizing carts to checking out customers. He decided to look for work after being approved for unemployment and finding that it wouldn’t be enough to cover his monthly expenses. (The minimum amount of state aid has since increased, although many unemployed residents are still waiting for their checks). A week after the March 16 executive order ending dine-in service, Dybash was hired at the store in West Bloomfield.
In some ways, working in the store is like coming full circle for Dybash. At age 14, he got his first job bagging groceries at a Farmer Jack, a now-defunct market chain. “Twenty-three years later, here I am bagging groceries at Plum Market,” he says.
Dybash feels like his employer, Plum Market, has handled safety precautions relatively well, noting that the company seems to be implementing more stringent policies right before or in tandem with state executive orders. “They literally have three people that are designated just to collect carts, one person to sanitize carts, and one person literally stationed by where you pick up carts... saying these are 100 percent sanitized [to customers],” he says. The store has also installed plexiglass shields at checkout counters.
While an executive order recently clarified what sorts of protective gear should be provided to grocery store workers in Michigan, Dybash says that the store where he works has been good about providing employees and guests with gloves and hand sanitizer. Most patrons have been understanding when it comes to new shopping rules, such as the suspension of bottle returns.
His views about how people shop have also changed. Before, he might have rolled his eyes at a shopper pushing a cart overloaded with groceries. But now he’s grateful that people are taking their shopping trips seriously rather than visiting stores for one or two items.
Even when working at a responsible social distance, going to the store still makes him feel anxious. “Not only do you hyper-analyze everybody that comes up to you, but you also hyper-analyze everything that’s happening in your body,” he says. “If I’m waking up and my throat is sore, is my throat sore because of my sinuses and because I have allergies, or is it because I have been exposed?” Dybash’s store was among those that adopted additional measures in line with Oakland County rules to screen essential workers for symptoms. When employees go to work, they’re required to answer questions in a survey and get their temperatures taken. Dybash was told to stay home for a week for what he described as food poisoning symptoms.
Dybash considers himself one of the lucky ones. Unlike many of his coworkers, he’s still receiving health care through his former employer, Aparium Hotel Group, through July, and he has some modest savings to get himself and his husband through a short-term financial crisis. The nationwide bailout check has also provided some security. Dybash says that many of his coworkers are forced to supplement their income by working for gig-economy services like Instacart.
But he wonders when and if things might ever get back to normal for him and for the hospitality industry. The Detroit Foundation Hotel where he worked is closed. Nearly every major event of the year — from Movement Electronic Music Festival to the behemoth North American International Auto Show — has been canceled or postponed. Meanwhile, the convention center across the street, which used to attract large numbers of customers to the Apparatus Room, is the site of a temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients. “I would love to say, ‘Hey, I will be back to work in July,’” he says. “Then, at the same token, I look back on the beginning of March and I would have never guessed that we would be in the position that we’re in right now.”
Recently, management placed him in charge of guest services, where he spends the day answering calls from concerned customers. He’s fielding the types of questions one would expect from anyone getting acquainted with this new era of shopping for food: Do you offer curbside pickup? Do you have toilet paper in stock? Dybash finds it a simple pleasure to answer the more standard-issue queries. “My favorite question so far was, ‘Do you sell grapefruits?’”
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