Lada (Hapij) Bidiak, MSDA Class of 1988 is a Merchant at Trader Joe's in Westfield, New Jersey. In her role, her main focus has always been on the customers. Before COVID19, Lada’s workdays were heavily focused on the customer experience; walking around the store and interacting with customers, making sure that they were enjoying their shopping experience (helping them find products, chatting about their families, introducing them to new products). She would also run the registers, work the Demo Station (handing out samples and suggesting recipe ideas), and support the store's local community efforts including leading tours and working with their neighborhood shares/donations program. When reflecting on her days at Trader Joe’s she notes, “My two favorite aspects of my job over the past 12 1/2 years were developing relationships with our customers, and growing along with my fellow crew members. I know many of our customers by name, I know about their jobs, their families, their joys and their struggles. I have watched pregnant women become mothers, and have watched their children grow. As for my fellow co-workers, we spend so much time together in the store that they, in a sense, have become my other family, and I actually look forward to going to work."
Today, with grocery providers like Trader Joe’s delivering a lifeline to their local communities, Lada’s role, in her words, “has drastically changed. I now spend the larger portion of my day either at the front door ensuring social distancing and proper usage of masks, or directing customers to available registers (constantly reminding them to maintain the recommended 6-foot distance from other customers and our employees.) I still work the registers, but any conversations that I would have had with customers during those transactions are now limited. We are six feet apart at all times, the masks hinder voice projection, and we are protected behind plexi-glass screens. I also spend a great deal of time comforting those customers who are scared of exposure to the virus, and who simply need someone to talk to (since they are otherwise quarantined at home). I do, however, continue to draw strength from my fellow co-workers, who despite risks to their own health, show up every day with a smile on their faces, ready to provide our customers with the shopping experience that they have come to love and expect at Trader Joe's.”
When reflecting on what it is like to be working out in the community in an essential services role, Lada continued, “I haven't really allowed myself to think about our level of exposure. I can't, because I have to get up every morning and go to work and deal with thousands of people who are angry and scared and every other emotion that goes hand in hand with a pandemic. But when I do find the odd moment when I am not at work, or am not helping our high school freshman and senior deal with their unexpected home schooling challenges (not to mention our daughter Maya missing out on the remainder of her senior year and everything that goes with it), I admit to myself that yes, I am scared. We are so exposed on a daily basis. Even with the masks and the gloves and the social distancing, we are exposed. When I let myself think about it, I begin to panic, so I don't let myself think about how scared I am to go to work.”
Instead of focusing on the fear, Lada looks for the positives. “I focus on how fortunate we are through all of this. No matter how scary, my husband and I are both employed (Andrei is a manager at Wegmans, so we often commiserate about the new normal of our work days!). We both get paychecks. We work in places where we can pick up food for ourselves and our loved ones without standing in line for an hour to do so. By shopping for my parents, my aunts and uncles, my 98-year-old grandmother, my cousins and my friends, I am able to limit their exposure to this virus, and am hopefully able to protect them. I am also extremely thankful that we live in a home that is filled with love, and which allows all four of us the space to be alone if we need or wish to be. We have electricity and running water and a refrigerator/freezer, phones, internet, TV and Netflix, and electronic book readers with enough books to last us a lifetime. And most of all, we are healthy, and are doing everything that we can to keep it that way.”
As someone with extensive community engagement during such a challenging time, Lada has a unique (and uplifting) perspective to share. “In my daily interactions with people (thousands every week), I have discovered that this virus has brought out the best in most. I watch young people stop the elderly from walking to the back of the line, giving up their spot so that the seniors don't have to wait too long in order to get into the store. I notice customers shopping for their elderly or immunocompromised neighbors, helping to limit their exposure to the virus. I overhear conversations while customers wait in line, where strangers share uplifting and positive anecdotes and stories at a time when everyone needs a bit of levity. It has truly renewed my faith in humanity.” Thank you, Lada, for serving the community in this important role; guiding your customers with great care through the transition from what used to be a familiar and frequent part of life to what is now newly unnerving and challenging. And, congratulations to Maya!