Heroes: Store workers urge 'Let's not take away our humanity'

By Tamra Testerman
Posted 6/26/20

The heroes and heroines of the pandemic in Taos are those with a skill set essential to our survival who put themselves in harm's way every day by showing up for work.

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Heroes: Store workers urge 'Let's not take away our humanity'

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The heroes and heroines of the pandemic in Taos are those with a skill set essential to our survival who put themselves in harm's way every day by showing up for work.

At local food markets, there were no days off, supply chains got choked and a once pleasant workspace became a challenge as the onslaught of the pandemic became a reality. Here are a few of the workers' stories.

Long before the sun rises over the sage in Arroyo Hondo, Felix Padilla is awake making coffee and preparing to drive 12 miles to a supermarket in Taos he's called home for 33 years.

Padilla is a third-generation Taoseño, a butcher by trade and the owner of Padilla's Meat Cutting, 72 Hondo Seco Road. His customers are his friends. He said the hardest part of going to work in town is not the risk of unpacking and cutting meat from plants beyond the New Mexico border or coming in contact with the COVID-19 virus in the aisles of the supermarket - it is the contact with his community that has been lost.

"People don't want to talk, they're afraid. Yes, there is a pandemic going on, and we need to be mindful, but by the same token, let's not take away our humanity, our traditions, our friendliness, our kindness to one another."

In Taos, staff at Cid's Food Market, at 623 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, face similar challenges. Erin Plaster, the health and beauty manager, said her biggest challenge is "exhaustion - mental, emotional and physical.

"It has been tiring trying to keep everything running in my department, while also doing my best to keep morale up among my staff as we have had to adapt to new and ever-changing protocols and procedures week after week, while also interacting with some fearful, angry and demanding customers.

"I am very thankful for the wonderful little team of caring, empathetic, positive people I get to do this work alongside. This time is tough for everyone in a million different ways."

She added, "Most of our customers have been very understanding, patient and caring.

"One sweet woman went around the store one hot afternoon asking employees if she could buy us a cold drink. Others have just stopped to ask if we're doing OK or to thank us for being here. Those small gestures mean a lot."

Bryan Fernandez, Cid's front-end manager, said "a good example of all heroes and heroines in the pandemic is anyone who can still get to work right now and keep things going. Everyone is working through hard conditions and working in fear of contracting the virus."

Fernandez said he and his front-end staff are doing their best to make the shopping experience at Cid's safe and enjoyable. "My front-end staff have been staying positive throughout the pandemic and trying to make our customers feel happy about their decision to shop here. We have a lot of amazing customers who have made us feel great about being here throughout the pandemic.

Cid Backer, the owner of the market said, "enforcing the governor's mandate that all customers have to wear masks has become the hardest challenge. I came back to work after quarantining for eight weeks to stand by the door and inform the customers of the new policy. While most customers have been agreeable, in my first three days back I was cursed at least a dozen times, threatened with lawsuits twice and one man wanted to engage in physical violence.

"After that, I hired a local security company to enforce the mandatory mask policy."

Backer continued, "There are grocery workers who have died from the virus doing their essential jobs and that is hard to ignore. Wearing a mask in a store when you shop is very uncomfortable - imagine having to wear one for an eight-hour shift even with breaks. Then, when you go home before you can hug your loved ones, you take off all your clothes and get into the shower."

Anna Woodall, the owner and manager of Sol Food Market and Café in Arroyo Seco, said customer confrontations are common as is the challenge of asking her employees to come into work every day and risk exposure.

"In the beginning, people were gracious toward us. But in recent weeks we have seen fear take over. It causes people to be irrational and often rude. I asked my employees to wear masks from the very beginning. I had a local business, Material Cut, make masks for everyone.

"But the masks may not be the perfect solution. They are uncomfortable to work in. After a while, you feel oxygen-deprived, which causes headaches, nausea and lightheadedness."

She continued, "An average day for one of my employees is hectic, stressful and involves a lot of running. Adding a mask to physical labor presents its own challenges. Add people being rude and stressed on their end from being afraid to be out in public.

"The whole situation is not ideal. With this said, I am proud of our Sol Food crew. They show up every day with a smile on their face, ready to work just as hard as the last day.

There are other markets in town with similar stories to tell: Smith's Food and Drug, Albertsons, Super Save, Dollar General, the Taos Market, Taos Food Co-op, Questa Center Super Market and Walmart.

Food markets didn't shutter their doors in response to the pandemic. People showed up every day putting themselves in harm's way to stock shelves, cut meat, fill coolers, mop floors, wipe down surfaces and ring up purchases - all to do the business of feeding Taos.

A kind word can go a long way in this new environment that everyone is trying to navigate.

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