Aimee Rose Guilbault: Experienced Life as An Essential Worker

Aimee Guilbault, mother of five, works at Superstore on Kingsway Avenue and owns her own business, Whimsical Washing Co., where she makes and sells eco-friendly personal and home cleaning products at the Downtown Farmers Market. In both of these roles, Guilbault was classified as an essential worker. 

Guilbault’s husband, Isho, is a school bus driver and became aware of the possibility of a pandemic before many people. Before any news of the Covid outbreak reached mainstream Canadian media, Asian parents on his school route were wearing masks and asking Isho if it was OK to send their children to school. Guilbault said, “Isho was reassuring parents, [saying], ‘No, it’s fine, it’s not going to come over here’, and then ….” her voice trailed off. 

She continued, “By March 13, I was aware as I was paying attention to the news. Then schools closed. It was surreal. Listening to Dr. Hinshaw, we were freaking out and getting paranoid. So when it [the lockdown] came, we understood the danger.”

In the early days, information about the pandemic was confusing. Guilbault asked herself, “Do I not go to work?” When she was designated an essential worker, she said, “I wore a bandana over my face right away. Everyone kind of made fun of me.”

Public health safety information was disjointed and unclear in March. Guilbault said, “Not much happened at Superstore right away. There were just a few paranoid employees. I continued with my usual work at the salad bar,” she said. “I can observe the store from that position. No one was taking it seriously. Then spacing for cash outs was implemented, then they closed two of the self-serve tills.”

She continued, “Every shift I went in, there was a new way of keeping people away from each other. Few customers were wearing masks.” 

Working in one of the few businesses open to the public was a unique experience. “I was totally aware of the pandemic. I would get stressed watching people and I wanted to tell them, ‘You don’t need this, honey,’ while they’re screaming spit all over the food,” she said. “Everything was so amplified.”

Pandemic shopping became a new term in 2020. Guilbault said, “It was like Christmas—there were so many people. Slowly, shelves went bare. People were panic shopping. It was very surreal,” she commented. “We got mixed messages. ‘Get enough food for two weeks.’ Then longer. Would the liquor stores close? We don’t know.”

People didn’t know how to deal with shopping at that point.  

“The salad bar closed and I was put on bulk. Bulk shopping changed, so we pre-packaged the bulk food in the back of the store. I loved it as I was not around people as much.” 

Guilbault added, “I was telling people it would be OK [in order] to reassure them. I talked to people more [as they were buying bulk]. I’m so grateful I was nice. Older people especially were scared.” 

Stocking items changed, too. “If there was a red dot on something, we knew we wouldn’t get it for a while. I know prices, what we [my family] uses. We worried about food shortages. We stocked up on nuts and fruit. And I would get groceries right after work.”   

Supply chains also had to improvise. Two big commodities were toilet paper and flour. Stores had to limit the number of packages one person could buy. The toilet paper isle was literally bare. It turns out that moving millions of people from a work or school environment to home changes the supply chain. Toilet paper manufacturers had to shift their process from making industrial rolls to personal rolls and that shift took time. The same thing happened with flour. The flour was available, but instead of going to bakeries and restaurants, consumers purchased it directly. 

She explained what that looked like in Superstore. “Even when we got flour, it wasn’t their regular packaging. Robin Hood had a brown bag with a stamp.”

Working in one of the few businesses open to the public was a unique experience. “I was totally aware of the pandemic. I would get stressed watching people and I wanted to tell them, ‘You don’t need this, honey,’ while they’re screaming spit all over the food,” she said. “Everything was so amplified.”    

She also got accustomed to changes at the farmers market. 

“The farmers market is my real love. I make home and body care cleaning products. All non-essential vendors had to leave. I was considered essential as I sell disinfectant.” 

Alberta Health Services had strict rules for farmers markets. Fifty people were allowed in at a time. They had to clean their hands. One person supervised each entrance, and the door only opened one way. 

 “I wore a mask and promoted what I was doing before it was mandatory. People thought I was sick because I was wearing a mask. I said, ‘No, if I was sick I would not be here.’” 

Some vendors changed what they sold. “People who made hats, for example, changed to making masks and came back.” She laughed, “I have quite the collection [of masks].”

“I didn’t get to see my whole market family. Still, we had good support from the community. I did better than normal. People support local. There were some complaints about not feeling safe, but it was much safer than Superstore.”

Being in customer service, Guilbault had the opportunity to observe how people responded to the pandemic. “Mostly it was old men refusing to wear a mask and street people who have no access to masks.” 

Racial issues were highlighted with the murder of George Floyd in the United States in June, and tensions flared and became conflated with public health measures. Maintaining store capacity limits became the responsibility of security guards. Guilbault said, “Security was scared. Mostly they’re immigrant workers. Only one is a white person.”  

To make matters worse, advice varied or became confusing. “We have weekly huddles [at Superstore]. In our last huddle in March, we were told masks may cause more harm than good.” 

Alberta Health Services never went to Superstore. Information was either not given to management or not filtered down to staff.

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