George Hook works at a Dierbergs in Creve Coeur as an assistant manager. He comes home and has to separate himself from his family, fearing he may have come in contact with COVID-19.

By: Jenna Jones

Customers used to yell at Elena Hook’s dad, George Hook, almost every day at his job as an assistant manager at a Creve Coeur Dierbergs. Shoppers would take their anger out on him when they could not find what they were looking for.

Now, they stop to thank him.

“He’s like a hero,” Webster junior Elena Hook said.

George Hook has been in the grocery store industry for 41 years. He graduated from Webster in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in Media Communications. After working in advertising, he moved to Dierbergs to be with his family more often. He has not looked back since.

George Hook belongs to the 655 United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW). The union is now describing him and his coworkers as first responders. So far, there is no way around the employees working. UFCW says they are working on a solution in case employees feel unsafe.

“The situation is by far crazier than any snow scare or holiday rush that I have ever experienced,” George Hook wrote in an email. “We don’t know when it’s going to end. We plan to just keep doing the best that we can to supply groceries to our customers.” 

Elena Hook watches her dad leave in the morning, hoping he does not come back carrying COVID-19. Both of her parents are in their 60s. Elena, 20, and her sister Marissa, 23, fear the disease would kill them. 

“If my dad got it, most likely my mom would get it, and who knows what would happen?” Elena Hook said. “I’d be alone. Not to make it selfish, but my sister and I, we wouldn’t have any parents.” 

George Hook and his daughter Elena at a wedding. Elena Hook is worried about her father’s health. Contributed by Elena Hook.

When George Hook comes home from work, he goes straight upstairs to distance himself from his wife. They have not been in the same room since coronavirus was first diagnosed in Missouri three weeks ago.

 “They’re so used to being together, and now they live totally separate lives,” Elena Hook said.

Collin Reischman, director of communications for the UFCW, said this is the reality for nearly 8,000 grocery store workers in St. Louis County. 

“We have to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect these folks,” Reischman said. “A lot of these folks — even though they’re doing incredibly important work right now — we have to be honest, they didn’t sign up to be on the front lines of a global pandemic when they took these jobs.”

Reischman said in order to protect the employees, Dierbergs has installed plexiglass at its registers to limit contact. Other stores belonging to the union, such as Schnucks and Straubs, are also working towards this.  

The union has also sent Missouri Governor Mike Parson letters in hopes he will officially name grocery store workers first responders. This would help the employees get personal protective equipment, child care and priority testing for the virus.

“These people aren’t really wearing a lot of equipment, they have bandanas and are doing the best they can,” Elena Hook said.  “There are so many grocery stores [that] there wouldn’t be enough equipment even if they could get it. For my family personally, a lot of people have [said] ‘We’re really worried about you.’”

Elena Hook said she has been trying to remain positive despite the challenges her family has faced. She continues to keep her life as normal as possible while maintaining little contact with the outside world.

“I’ve been trying to keep a level head because the rest of my family is like ‘Oh, we’re gonna die,’ and I don’t believe that,” Elena Hook said, her voice breaking.

“If any of us were to get sick, I feel like we’d be okay, and I try to remind myself of that, but it’s been hard.”

Both Reischman and Elena Hook stressed the importance of being appreciative of grocery store workers now and after the pandemic. 

“[They] know how important their work is and they will tell you, ‘I know it’s dangerous, but I know the public needs my work right now,’” Reischman said. “These are people who want to work, who want to help. We ought to treat them like valued workers, not as replaceable low-wage cognitive machines. These people are important to us.”

Elena Hook ordered a cake for her dad and his seven other managers to make sure they knew how important and appreciated they were. George Hook and his fellow managers were at a loss for words when they received the cake in a meeting. 

 Scribbled in blue icing was the phrase “Thank you for serving our community.”

Elena Hook bought her dad and his fellow managers a cake to show them appreciation. George Hook and his fellow managers were shocked by the surprise. Photo contributed by Elena Hook.