As a Trader Joe's cashier who is deaf, it can be difficult for Matthew Simmons to communicate with customers even in normal times. But the last few weeks have been nearly impossible thanks to COVID-19.
"I rely heavily on using my lip-reading skills so customers wearing facial coverings is a problem for me," Simmons said.
Masked grocery store shoppers unaware Simmons is deaf would ask questions and try to strike up a conversation with him at the cash register -- making for some unintended customer service issues.
"People thought I was ignoring them or being rude but I simply didn’t know they were speaking to me because I can’t see their mouth," Simmons explained. "It made me upset because I couldn’t help it and left me feeling defeated."
Simmons began brainstorming ways he could solve the problem with his coworkers at the Vancouver, Washington, store. The team decided it would be best to have a crew member work alongside him for the time being so there wasn’t a breakdown in communication with customers hustling to get supplies. That is until Simmons came across the perfect shirt online.
"It read ‘I'm Deaf’ on the front and 'tap on the shoulder' on the back which is exactly what I needed people to know from a distance so I can do my job," Simmons said.
He went to his boss Ali Baker about the shirt and she loved the idea. They got some paint, an iconic Trader Joe’s T-shirt, and began designing the shirt together -- making sure the lettering was clear and visible from afar. Baker also bought three small white boards and dry erase markers for Simmons to walk around with so shoppers could ask him questions while covered up.
"People will normally stand at his cashier no matter how long the line is because they adore him so much," Baker said. "We’re one big family here and he usually does the most communicating out of everyone on our team so we had to make a change."
And the change that came was instantaneous.
"The first customer at my register read it and wrote down on the small white board 'It must be hard with everyone wearing masks! Thank you for your help,'" Simmons said. "People finally understood it was such a relief."
Simmons shared his experience in a Facebook post Sunday that has since received thousands of likes and comments, all cheering him on.
"Thank you for all that you do," one user commented.
"Totally respect how hard you work and how patient you are," another chimed in.
But what may have been the highlight of Simmons new look was the support he received from his peers.
"To see the lengths that my fellow teammates went to so that I would feel supported and no different than any other employee really shows the human kindness we have for one another," Simmons said. "Working together towards a common goal, breaking down barriers, showing compassion to one another instead of prejudices. That’s the best part."
Simmons added he plans to wear his new shirt for the foreseeable future.