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In praise of those who worked during the pandemic

They were called heroes for the first time in their lives, for their willingness to work at a time when bars, restaurants and fitness centers were closed to stem the tide of a deadly virus. These reliable employees played key roles in sustaining critical elements of the economy at a time of uncertain peril when so little was known about COVID-19. In Rochester, Minnesota, a handful of these everyday workers represents a microcosm of all of those who kept life moving when everything else stopped.

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Store manager Brian Cooper Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at Silver Lake Foods in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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EDITOR’S NOTE: It's called "The Great Resignation," a seismic upheaval in the workforce that is reshaping today's economy. This week, Forum Communication Co. reporters will look at The Great Resignation's profound effects on workers and businesses across the region in our multi-part series, "Help Wanted."

ROCHESTER — It's nearly forgotten now, but it was only last year that Brian Cooper and other grocery store workers entered one of the strangest episodes of their lives.

They were hailed as heroes for their willingness to work at a time when bars, restaurants and fitness centers were closed to stem the tide of a deadly virus.

Cooper, who manages Silver Lake Foods in Rochester, says he never felt comfortable being compared to health care workers who were trying to save lives amid a raging infectious disease.

"I couldn't put myself on the same level as people who work in intensive care units," Cooper said.

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Yet, there is little question that Cooper and other grocery employees — as well as liquor store workers, home health care aides and others — played key roles in sustaining critical elements of the economy at a time of uncertain peril when so little was known about COVID-19.

How different from today when millions have disappeared from the labor market and businesses are desperate for workers.

It was an unsettling time in the early weeks of the pandemic last year, Cooper recalls. Shelves for toilet paper were empty. Cooper can remember stacking shelves all day to fill the demand. Amid the hectic activity, a sense of foreboding filled the air.

"To me, it felt like this storm cloud coming," he said.

In addition, grocery store workers found themselves playing or expected to play the role of public health enforcers or referees.

One time, Cooper was called from the freezer to the front office to deal with a customer upset about the lack of hand sanitizers. Cooper tried to explain to the woman that the item was in high demand, and Silver Lake Foods wasn't the only store struggling to find it.

In essence, they did their jobs

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Sarah Peck, a manager at Apollo Liquor, prepares cardboard bottle dividers at the Maine Avenue Southeast Apollo Liquor location Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

At the end of 2021, businesses face a different set of challenges, trying to fill open positions when a reported 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August.

North Dakota has the 13th lowest unemployment rate in the nation, with 3.3%, while Minnesota trailed closely at just 3.5%, according to November numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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But during the height of the pandemic, the work of holding up key parts of the economy fell to a certain subset of employees.

Few retail outlets felt the effects of the coronavirus upheaval as powerfully as liquor stores. With ordinary social outlets closed and people stuck at home, liquor stores saw a surge in sales that continues to this day and aisles filled with customers.

Sarah Peck, a manager at Rochester's Apollo Liquor, calls the first weeks of the shutdown the "craziest thing" she ever witnessed. The day of the shutdown, business skyrocketed.

"You never knew what you're coming to work to find or deal with," Peck said. "Between employees not coming, deliveries not coming, out of stocks — it was just chaotic."

A truck would arrive every Wednesday to replenish the shelves at the store. But instead of the 150 to 200 cases that were typically delivered, it was 500 to 600 cases to feed the soaring demand.

"You're short-staffed, and you're still trying to get it on the shelf as fast as possible, because your customers are now opening that box on the floor and taking it, because it's empty on the shelf," Peck said.

'You got to keep going'

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Server and manager Jessica Adams brings food to a table Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, at Whistle Binkies North in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Adams is a single mom. So even as she was adjusting to changes at work — Whistle Binkies shifted to take-out service after Gov. Tim Walz ordered the closure of indoor dining options — her day care shut down.

"I wouldn't say anything has been easy, but you know — it's life," she said. "And you got to keep going."

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Not everything was bleak. Adams recalls some things fondly. Whistle Binkies has an expansive patio in the back that enabled the restaurant to do outdoor dining even when temperatures were below freezing.

"You would wear boots and hats and work outside," she said. "It was kind of a fun time just because it was something different. But it was crazy."

Jessica Adams, a server-manager at Whistle Binkies in Rochester, recalls how the pandemic hit nearly every aspect of her life at the same time.

Adams also recalls how generous customers could be. Showing their appreciation for staying open, businesses would sometimes leave a $100 tip.

Social media often focused on the misbehaving people who erupted in airplanes or grocery stores in response to mask mandates. But that's not how Adams saw her customers.

"Everybody during that time was so understanding about things and just nicer," she said.

Adams said she took unemployment when her hours at the restaurant were reduced, but she never stopped working. She said her work ethic is modeled after her mom, a nurse. Adams calls her mother the hardest-working woman she knows.

Related Topics: HELP WANTED PROJECT
Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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