customer service industry pandemic

What the pandemic has done to the customer service industry

Former employees of Montreal deps, retail stores and restaurants spoke to us about what forced them out of their jobs.

I was working in a dépanneur near one of Montreal’s biggest parks for a little over six months. I recently I gave my two weeks’ notice, and here’s why. 

The small, square-shaped room is filled to the brim with shelves packed with chips, candy, nuts, pantry staples, garbage bags and a shit ton of beer. In the summer, a small but mighty gelato fridge hums loudly, making it hard to hear. Behind the counter, the slushy machine churns in a somewhat calming pattern. 

The job itself is fun, and fairly easy. In the winter, I sit behind the counter doing my school work for hours on end, waiting for customers to come in. When they do, it’s the regulars; people from the neighbourhood I know by name. Some I am happy to see, and others I dread. My experience doesn’t seem to be unique. Everyone who’s worked a customer service job knows the feeling of dreading certain clients.

For these purposes, a customer service industry job is defined as any job where the employee comes into direct contact with the customers. These jobs could include a grocery store attendant, bank teller, barista, dépanneur clerk, sales associate or anything in between.

Now more than ever, people working in these positions dread to see a certain type of client: the client who doesn’t wear their mask properly, or who uses a scarf riddled with holes to cover their face; clients who fail to disinfect their hands upon entering the store, while on the other hand it’s been imprinted in my brain. In fact, this anxiety has gotten so bad for me that I had to put in my two weeks’ notice. 

The descent of hot summer weather in Montreal has brought many hermits out of their homes and into parks to soak up the sun. As a result, people are drinking, buying chips and ice cream for them and their friends, and it is not uncommon to see hour-long lines forming outside my place of work. 

But every job gets busy — that’s not my complaint. Rather, it’s the constant need to remind at least one third of the customers to disinfect their hands. It is as if workers have become a sort of policing force, meant to enforce COVID measures to those running errands. 

That was never a part of my job description. I never knew half of my time would be spent yelling “Excuse-moi, il faut se désinfecter les mains,”  over the loud hums of the beer fridges to try and catch someone’s attention, to finally have them cuss you out and leave mumbling insults. 

As a customer, it may be inconvenient to have to disinfect your hands every time you step into a new building, but a simple measure such as that one can make employees feel more safe in their place of work. 

The stress of going to work and constantly being exposed to COVID-19 started to get to me. I dreaded going in due to the overwhelming anger and anxiety I felt when someone walked in and ignores the safety measures posted on the door. I thought I might have been alone, but after talking to other workers in the customer service industry, I realized this wasn’t a unique experience. 

pandemic customer service industry
What the pandemic has done to the customer service industry. Photo by Tim Douglas

Dorsa Afshin worked at a popular store on Ste-Catherine street, in the heart of downtown Montreal. (She asked to keep the store’s name anonymous.) Before the pandemic, these stores were always packed, and the streets would be filled with crowds shuffling along the skinny sidewalks.

She worked as a sales associate from Oct. 2019 to Sept. 2020, on the floor, running merchandise to and from the back as well as helping customers out. Although stores have closed periodically this past year, they stayed open for a relatively long time in comparison to other indoor public places, such as museums or movie theatres. 

When the store reopened in June 2020, Afshin realized this was going to be a summer like none other. “Just realizing how many people were coming in and out made me feel a little bit overwhelmed.”

The store has a set of specific restrictions and guidelines they abide by. All customers and employees must wear a mask and disinfect their hands, the changing rooms were closed, only 20 people including employees were allowed inside. On top of these fairly basic measures, employees were to quarantine any merchandise that a customer had tried on for 48 hours, rendering any virus harmless. 

Afshin said, “By August or September, there were so many people coming into the store that we were trying so many things that we couldn’t quarantine (merchandise) anymore.” 

Since this was a fairly big establishment, she experienced less discomfort regarding confronting customers, but a sense of danger and anxiety seeped into her mind in different ways. “Everyone was touching everything, and you become hyper aware of how everything could be contaminated.”

Even in an environment where you are expected to follow the rules — not somewhere as banal as a dépanneur — the clientele fails to follow some basic guidelines. “People weren’t respecting the two metres, or they weren’t putting their mask on properly, they wouldn’t cover their nose. So to some extent, I felt like, every day, I was at risk. And I was feeling like people weren’t really understanding the importance of actually respecting the measures.”

She expressed how frustrated she’d been with customers disregarding hand sanitizer. “I don’t know if it was like they wouldn’t see the disinfectant … But also, you’ve been to stores, you know it’s gonna be there. I don’t know how you can’t see (the hand sanitizer) or how you can’t look for it.”

Listen, I get it — no one likes to disinfect their hands. It’s sticky and often smells like cheap tequila. But if it’s between your hands being gooey or contracting or spreading a virus which has caused the entire world to shift, I think the choice is simple. 

When Afshin quit, she wasn’t fully aware of why. But after a couple days she could already feel her stress reduced. Being exposed can take a massive toll on employees, who are prone to burnout and feel as if their employers do not have their best interests at heart

Dealing with daily confrontation and the added risk of contracting the virus, Afshin felt overwhelmed. And this was not only due to exposure but also the stress of constant confrontation. She said, “It is stressful. Especially when [customers] really don’t want to listen to what you’re saying, and they don’t even want to be told what to do,” she said.

pandemic customer service industry
What the pandemic has done to the customer service industry. Photo by Norma Mortensen

Anna Justen worked at a restaurant located on St-Denis from Aug. 2020 to Feb. 2021. As an international student from the United States, having a job is extremely important for her livelihood. The money she earned allowed her to pay rent — needless to say she wouldn’t have given her job up easily. 

“At the end of the day in order to survive, you need money in this world”, said Justen.

Despite the immense pressure to stay employed, she began dreading every shift with a sharp anxious pain in her stomach. She said, “As soon as I would realize that we’re actually in a pandemic, and that [the employees] were not taking it as seriously, and that clients often wouldn’t take it as seriously as well — It just stressed me out constantly.”

“I ended up quitting this job because I literally could not handle it.” 

Working in a small space, Justen said sometimes employees wouldn’t wear their masks properly. “When I first started working there in August, the boss would regularly not wear his mask. It was not really that big of a deal to him.”

Hand sanitizer was present at the front of the store if customers felt inclined, but since most people entering the store don’t touch anything apart from the debit machine, no one felt the need to enforce using the hand sanitizer. “Masks were obviously necessary, and you can’t eat in the establishment. And then for a while there, you can’t eat on the terrace either.”

If you expect a plexi-glass to be present between employees and customers at the counter, you would be wrong. Justen also said that employees were not in the habit of disinfecting surfaces. In fact, they were discouraged to do so. “I eventually got out of the habit of doing that just because my boss did not give a shit and would be mad if I spent my time doing that,” she said.

When she finally quit, she instantly felt the constant anxiety of exposure lift off of her chest, and felt like she was able to breath again.

Although constantly being exposed to COVID wasn’t one of her biggest stressors day-to-day, once she was gone she realized the toll it had taken on her. “That was kind of in the back of my mind. After leaving, I realized how anxious it made me after taking time away,” she said.

These are just three of the stories I’ve heard about the stress that comes with working exposed to people everyday in a global pandemic. It ruins the experience for everyone; leaves me going home at night afraid that I may have put myself and my bubble at risk. 

My job wasn’t very hard, and I loved the time I spent working there. I had an amazing and supportive boss, which made the entire experience tolerable. Being able to rant to her about my discomfort in our workplace helped to relieve the pressure, but it wasn’t enough.

I don’t want anyone to come out of this feeling guilty, or to stop anyone from running errands when that could be your only escape. All I am trying to convey is that we need to pay more attention to those who are continuously working in an at-risk environment so we can enjoy some semblance of a normal life. ■

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