Ariel Gray does not talk about the dangers of her job with her two kids, 8-year-old Jeremiah and 5-year-old Jasiah, because she doesn’t want them to worry.
Perhaps when they’re older, they’ll realize their mother was an unsung hero during the COVID-19 pandemic. They might also come to understand why she doesn’t love on them as soon as she gets home from her shifts as a cashier at the H-E-B in the Heights.
Gray first makes sure she’s clean.
“Mommy takes her clothes off and gets in the shower, and then it’s time to hug and kiss and say hi,” Gray said.
Such is life these days for Gray, who has adjusted to a new normal both at home and at work. Grocery stores such as H-E-B and Kroger have become bastions of comfort for area residents, who are staying at home more often and making more meals in their kitchens.
That means they’re buying more groceries from places such as H-E-B, a Texas-based chain that opened a two-story Heights location last year at 2300 N. Shepherd Dr. Gray has worked there since it opened in January 2019, logging 40 hours per week and manning a register most weekends.
Store general manager Tammy Hager said it serves about 4,000 customers per day, and on most mornings there’s a line of people waiting to get in. Although H-E-B regularly restocks its shelves, Hager said cleaning supplies, toilet paper and dry goods such as yeast, flour and sugar have been hard to keep on the shelves amidst the pandemic and the panic-buying it has induced.
“I think H-E-B is like the true north,” Hager said. “As long as we’re here and we’re good … it puts their mind at ease.”
Still, Gray and Hager said customers have generally been more on edge during the last two months and in some cases unruly. They said there was an incident about two weeks ago in which a man was upset about a purchase limit on disinfecting wipes.
Hager said the customer threw a wipe at a cashier. Gray was working in a neighboring aisle and intervened, explaining to the customer why there were purchase limits on certain items, then asking him to leave before comforting her co-worker.
“She has a really caring personality,” Hager said of Gray. “She’s the kind of person that the (other employees) know they can rely on.”
Gray said coping with customers’ anxiety is challenging, but it’s also rewarding when they show their appreciation. And there have been plenty of understanding supporters as well.
Hager said some customers have tried to leave tips. Others have just shown interest in the H-E-B workers who are serving them.
“They’re concerned about our wellbeing, asking, ‘What do you need? Are you taking care of yourself?’” Gray said. “That means a lot to us.”
Even though she and her co-workers are regularly interacting with customers at a time when local officials are asking people to stay apart, Gray said has been comforted by the safety measures H-E-B has implemented. Employees have been required to wear gloves and masks for the last two weeks or so, and the store has installed clear plexiglass “sneeze guards” in an attempt to shield cashiers and baggers from customers who might be infected with COVID-19.
Hager said none of the 450 or so employees at her store has tested positive for the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus. She also said the store has not been notified about any of its customers having been exposed.
Hager said H-E-B has employees who are dedicated to cleaning all frequently touched surfaces, including shopping cart handles and refrigerator doors, while the store is open. The grocer also has put markings on the floor near its check-out registers that instruct customers to maintain social distancing by standing at least 6 feet apart.
“I’m not so much worried,” Gray said. “H-E-B has done a very good job.”
H-E-B also has provided incentives to the employees who are on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, including its partners at the Heights location. Hager said every employee has gotten some sort of additional compensation, with hourly employees such as Gray receiving pay raises of $2 per hour.
That helps to keep Gray, a single mother who lives in the Cypress area, coming back to work. So does the need to support her two young kids, who go to daycare while she works.
“I’m blessed enough to even have a job during this time,” she said. “A lot of people don’t even have a job.”