Retailers are struggling to continue operations a week after the government declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak, with shop employees facing overwork due to labor shortages and stress associated with infection risks.

The number of part-time workers began declining in March when the government requested nationwide emergency school closures, according to the National Supermarket Association of Japan.

Merchants are also facing difficulties recruiting new employees as many nursery schools and gakudo hoiku after-school care facilities for elementary school children have been closed amid the pandemic.

On top of labor shortages, some retail outlets are swamped with thousands of daily inquiries and complaints about shortages of face masks, food and other daily necessities, the association said.

Moreover, retailers are struggling to procure for their employees such items as masks and disinfectants that are needed to prevent COVID-19 infections among themselves.

The overall number of customers is increasing after the government issued the emergency declaration April 7, since more families are visiting stores together.

“Some customers visit retail stores with three generations of their families, even standing as large groups in checkout lines,” an association official said. “Only one family member should wait in a checkout line.”

A 57-year-old part-time worker at a supermarket in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, said that only three face masks each had been distributed to employees.

Some customers ask cashiers to wash their hands or demand they check out products without touching them, she said.

Adding to the store’s problems, she said that high school students who were working there part time have quit because their parents were worried about their children becoming infected.

“My hourly wage for risking my life is only ¥1,060,” said a 25-year-old woman who leaves her two infants at a nursery school to work at a convenience store in Toshima Ward, Tokyo.

“The government doesn’t care about workers in the retail industry,” she said of the government’s request that only nonessential businesses shut down.

Planning to give birth to her third child in September, she said, “I want to make some money until then, but I’m worried what would happen if I or my family members are infected with the coronavirus.”

Hiromi Ikeuchi, a professor at Kansai University who is an expert on customer complaints, said that “not only store operators but also customers as users have to consider ways to protect retail workers.”

She said she wants customers to “have sympathy for and thank” retail workers.

Ikeuchi also called on authorities to provide retail stores with necessary supplies such as disinfectants and ask local police to conduct patrols to make sure they are safe.

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