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Region grocery workers providing lifeline during coronavirus pandemic
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Region grocery workers providing lifeline during coronavirus pandemic

For weeks, Northwest Indiana residents have hunkered down at home while the coronavirus pandemic has raged on.

Many are working from home, ensconced on their couch with a laptop, in the comfort of their slippers and robes, while neighbors mow their lawns in pajama pants. 

The Region's grocery workers, however, have continued to soldier on, showing up to work every day to keep the shelves stocked and the people fed and equipped with life's essentials. Northwest Indiana residents have relied heavily on supermarket workers during the viral outbreak as they've flocked to stores to clear them out of toilet paper, bottled water and Chef Boyardee.

Kim Rhyne, a manager at the Strack & Van Til at Cline Avenue and 45th Street in Highland, never has dealt with such crowds in her 31 years in the business.

"We've gotten crowded for snowstorms, but this is something very different," she said. "It's something I've never seen before. We've had lines that went back to the dairy section."

Supermarket workers have been putting in long hours. Ryhne was working 50 to 60 hours a week at first.

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"It's tiring," she said. "But the adrenaline keeps you going. You push yourself to keep going and keep the lines moving. It just blows your mind, what we're dealing with right now. The lines down the aisles have been unbelievable."

It's finally starting to slow down a little, as shoppers settle more into normal routines, but it's generally been as busy as it gets on the day before Halloween.

"I've been telling people it's normally packed the week before a holiday, but now it's like a holiday seven days a week," Rhyne said. "People's carts are overflowing with stuff — water, ravioli, ramen noodles, toilet paper. We've had people spend $500 on groceries, $700 on groceries. That's not normal."

'The heart and soul' 

Strack & Van Til CEO Jeff Strack said employees of the Highland-based chain of 20 supermarkets have been heroes during the public health crisis.

"Visiting our stores during this crisis and seeing all the work our associates and managers have been doing has been amazing and rewarding," Strack said. "They have put in long hours and continued to provide our customers with the safest and best possible experience under some very challenging conditions. They have shown why they are the heart and soul of Strack & Van Til."

The supermarket chain has tried to take care of its workers during the trying time, Strack said.

"Besides providing our people with various protective equipment and other safety measures, we have been paying all of our associates a hero bonus during this time frame," he said. "Not just the people at Strack & Van Til, but all the people and companies on the front lines have really rallied when our communities needed them the most."

Strack & Van Til has done a lot to keep employees safe, such as installing sneeze guards at the counter, putting markers on the floor to encourage social distancing, eliminating the small carts so that customers will be at least a few feet apart, and providing employees with masks and gloves.

"It's hot and your mouth gets dry wearing a mask all day. But we understand why we have to do it," Rhyne said. "Strack's has really looked after our safety. I've been really happy with the company, especially with how they looked after our safety. Our customers appreciate it's for their safety, too."

Some workers hyperventilated or had trouble breathing when they first donned the masks for extended periods, but Rhyne helped them adjust to the safety precaution that's recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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"I had to help a few of my employees, telling them, 'Let's breathe, let's get through this one day at a time,'" she said. "I have to be a mother to my employees, telling them to focus on one order at a time, to focus on the customer and not look down the aisle and see 30 customers. Just wait on one at a time. My job is to be a motivator, a protector and watch over all of them."

The trial by fire has helped bring together an already close-knit community.

"I like to say we're like a dysfunctional family," she said. "We might get mad at each other, but we're best friends. We go on weddings and outings together. It's like a family."

Strack & Van Til also has called in reinforcements to help its swamped staff. Employees were allowed to bring friends and family to a job fair, and Rhyne's 16-year-old-son, Jayden, got hired on the spot as a bagger.

Even with more cashiers and baggers, it's been overwhelming at times. But customers generally have been understanding. 

"Customers have been very appreciative and telling us, 'Thank you, thank you for all your help, we appreciate you being here,'" she said. "We've had nurses buy us ice cream; essential workers buying ice cream for essential workers."

Some customers have gotten upset over buying limits after they cleared out in-demand items like toilet paper, Lysol wipes, bottled water, milk, eggs and bread.

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"It's been crazy, absolutely crazy," said Carol Moreno, who works at the Strack & Van Til on Old Ridge Road in Hobart. "We sometimes have lines at 6 a.m."

Some customers have been cranky, but many have been nice.

"A customer just gave the bagger and I a $10 tip because her husband was blessed and she was paying it forward," he said. "But then you pay it forward. A regular customer was short $3, and I told him, 'I got you, you get me next time.'" 

Moreno has been putting in an extra five or six hours a week and earning hazard pay. She's been ringing customers in long lines and fielding frequent calls from people who want to know if they still have toilet paper or other items in stock.

"It feels good to help people," he said. "And I'm just thankful I still have a job."

Up for the challenge

Peggy Werner, who has worked at the Highland Strack & Van Til for 16 years, said customers have called so frequently since many — especially the elderly — are coming in less often but stockpiling as much as they can when they do.

"Some people don't want to come in unless they have to," she said. "We're as safe as we can be with gloves, masks and shields so you can't sneeze on someone on the other side. We don't want to get germs, and we don't want to give anybody germs, since you might not even know you have it. We don't want to pass anything on or have anyone give the virus to us."

Werner throws all her clothes in the washing machine as soon as she returns home from a shift.

"We can't take any chances," she said. "You don't know how long it stays on the fabric. We've got to protect ourselves and protect our families at home. We wear masks for eight hours, and it gets hot. Your mouth gets dry. It's just part of life and you have to suck it up."

The long days at the grocery store have been difficult but also rewarding because it's a chance to help others, Rhyne said.

"You couldn't predict this. It just happened one day," she said. "We were normal one day, and then we had lines down the aisles. It was unbelievable. It's kind of like life is like a game every day. It's a challenge, but we're up to it."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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