Frontlines during COVID-19 crisis. Burpengary Woolworths Fresh manager Janelle Weeks poses for a photograph at the store. Friday, April 3, 2020. (AAP Image/Renae Droop)
Frontlines during COVID-19 crisis. Burpengary Woolworths Fresh manager Janelle Weeks poses for a photograph at the store. Friday, April 3, 2020. (AAP Image/Renae Droop)

Horror stories from supermarket hell

When Will* arrives at Woolworths for his 10am shift on a Sunday morning, the first thing he notices is that already, the toilet paper aisle has been stripped bare.

Later in his shift, an eagle-eyed customer spots a concealed pack of toilet paper that has fallen behind the shelf - the last one. She asks Will to get it for her.

He struggles to reach above and around the high shelf to grab it. The customer eggs him on, saying, "come on, you can get it".

By now a crowd of shoppers have formed around them like seagulls waiting for a chip, as they realise there's one prized pack of toilet paper left.

Woolworths workers are under an extreme amount of pressure from the public.
Woolworths workers are under an extreme amount of pressure from the public.

Cases like Will's are becoming the norm as panic buying takes hold in Australia, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Restrictions on toilet paper and hand sanitiser were brought in last month, as Aussies stripped shelves of these items.

In Woolworths, the restrictions have since broadened to two per pack for every item in the store, unless otherwise specified.

Empty toilet paper shelves have been an everyday sight at supermarkets across the country for weeks. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Empty toilet paper shelves have been an everyday sight at supermarkets across the country for weeks. Picture: Jonathan Ng

Will told UTS student publication The Comma the harrowing tale of bringing out a box of antibacterial hand wipes.

A group of customers followed him around the store, picking off packet by packet from the box. By the time he got to the shelf, the box was empty.

"Everyone was just trying to get their hands on anything they could," Will said. "Everyone was just not caring about sort of anyone around them."

One customer told Will when he asked what she needed a certain item for: "The end of the world, duh."

A queue outside Woolworths in Mascot, Friday 3 April 2020. Picture: Nikki Short
A queue outside Woolworths in Mascot, Friday 3 April 2020. Picture: Nikki Short

These horror stories are not unique to Woolworths.

A Coles worker, who wanted to stay anonymous, has been blamed for the toilet paper shortage single-handedly.

"Customers accuse us of hiding all the toilet paper out the back to keep for ourselves," the witness told news.com.au.

"We actually don't have anything out the back.

"We're lucky to get one delivery a day of toilet paper and sometimes we don't get one at all so people get very annoyed."

Elderly people queue at Woolworths in Moonee Ponds. Picture: David Geraghty / The Australian.
Elderly people queue at Woolworths in Moonee Ponds. Picture: David Geraghty / The Australian.

Ankit*, an international student who works at Woolworths, has been confronted by many angry customers.

He's seen first-hand the ways many Aussies attempt to bypass the restrictions on items, but the point of sale (POS) system at the till won't allow this. And he often cops the blame.

"The POS system automatically locks some of the items and have restrictions in the number of items you can buy, so when this happens, some people start throwing tantrums," he said.

Ankit added that people also attempt to sidestep around the rules by pretending to be from different households.

"Some people, they enter the store as a couple, as one unit, do their shopping and while checking out the goods they say we don't know each other," he said.

"Suddenly they turn into two units despite knowing that there are restrictions on goods per household and then the drama begins."

In addition to dealing with disgruntled customers, supermarket workers fear for their health and safety, with many paranoid that they will catch COVID-19 themselves.

Ankit worries about coming into contact with someone who has the virus.

"Being on the frontline is very risky," he admitted.

Burpengary Woolworths Fresh manager Janelle Weeks is on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture: Renae Droop/AAP
Burpengary Woolworths Fresh manager Janelle Weeks is on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture: Renae Droop/AAP

Supermarket giants have made changes to keep stores safe for customers and workers, but it's unclear how effective the measures have been.

Woolworths is now rotating checkout service operators every two hours to limit interactions.

From now on, customers will also be asked to bag their own goods, in compliance with social distancing measures.

"The safety and health of our teams and customers remains our top priority as we continue to support the essential food and grocery needs of the Australian community," Woolworths Supermarkets Managing Director, Claire Peters said.

*Names have been withheld for privacy reasons.

This article originally appeared on The Comma and was reproduced with permission. 

Staff members must now bear the brunt of customers’ anger. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Staff members must now bear the brunt of customers’ anger. Picture: Jonathan Ng

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