essential service workers retail

To Suzanne at Super C, and all the essential workers keeping society going

“Please remember frontline retail workers. Add your voice to those asking to prioritize them for booster shots, N95 masks and pandemic bonuses. Be patient if it takes a little longer at the cash. Say thank you and say it often.”

Last week, I went to Canada Post to mail a package only to find out that the item required FedEx shipping, forcing me to go to a nearby Super C store where a FedEx outlet operates from the supermarket’s customer service department. 

I didn’t realize until I got there that one person was handling both tasks. The same person who basically handles the supermarket’s Express Checkout line, customer purchases, returns and or complaints, as well as lottery and cigarette sales, also handles FedEx shipments. Mailing a package can be a time-consuming process. It requires that customers ask and are informed of their mailing options, manually filling out a form, and then having the employee input that information online, weighing the item, sealing the item, having the customer pay for the item, being provided with the tracking number for the item. And this during COVID when everything takes twice as long to ensure safety protocols are respected. 

To no one’s surprise, I waited for about 35 minutes to process my package. The young student who initially served me left the Express Checkout line unattended with about eight or nine people waiting, to politely come and ask me what I needed, provide me with a price, answer my questions regarding delivery times, give me my forms, and then rushed back to her cash to serve two to three people before returning to help someone else behind me. The young teen came back two or three more times to help move along the transaction but would always rush back to her cash and its never-ending stream of rushed customers. 

So much empathy for frontline workers

Eventually, an older woman from another cash came and took over my transaction so the young cashier could focus on the express lane. Suzanne was the assistant manager. I know because her name and work title were right there on her tag. She was incredibly jovial, called all her employees chérie, cracked jokes and earnestly apologized to me twice for the fact that it was taking so long. 

I shook my head. “You have nothing to apologize for,” I told her. “You’re all doing the best you can do under the circumstances. I know you’re short-staffed.” 

I could see the tension in her shoulders ease up when I uttered those words, as if I had suddenly given her permission to breathe. She confessed that she was missing three people that day and two had already called in sick for tomorrow. “University and CEGEP students are also going back to school so I’m about to lose my students for daytime shifts,” she told me with a furrowed brow. 

I watched her move around at lightning speed. I noticed the wedding ring on her finger. Someone’s wife, someone’s mother, most likely, I thought. As an assistant manager, she works full time. Supermarkets are open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days, with shifts often being just as long. I watched her enter my package’s shipping information, while one of her workers came over asking for a day off, and another yelled out asking for a price look-up (PLU) code that most long-time cashiers know by heart. She replied to both with patience and a smile. She then noticed the countertop where I would soon be signing for my package was dirty and quickly brought out the Windex to wipe it down, apologizing (again) for asking me to move back. 

That “unskilled labour” we can’t live without 

I’ve known Suzanne my entire life. My mom was a Suzanne, working crazy hours in restaurants with my dad when I was growing up. She’s got the varicose veins to prove it. Women like Suzanne are often looked down upon by many as unskilled labour, minimum-wage workers, when — truth be told — women like Suzanne make the world go round.

Do you ever notice the older, no-nonsense waitresses with the blue eye shadow and the sensible shoes at places like Chalet BBQ? Do you pay attention when you pay for your food at casse-croûtes across the province at who’s ringing it up, the line cooks making your food at the grill? How methodically they line everything up, how quickly that assembly line of burger patties, hot dogs, tomato slices, French fries and gravy moves out to clients? Do you notice the cashiers at Costco or Dollarama stores? The way they greet, scan, punch in, push down, multi-task like it’s nobody’s business? Do you notice that — despite plexiglass panels and antibacterial gels — there’s no real room to safely keep a distance from an ever-present, ever-changing public that talks to them, pays for purchases, demands to see the manager, stands a little too close?

No room to hide from COVID

Do you know how many of them go home to tight living quarters, spouses trying to learn a new language, kids trying to manage online learning? Have you ever asked them how long it takes them to get from their home in Cote-des-Neiges to Hochelaga at 8 a.m. in the morning, how many bus routes, how many metro stops, how many strangers sandwiched next to each other on public transit? Do you know how many times they wash and disinfect their hands during a typical shift, how many people with masks under their nose they encounter, how many impatient, annoyed and unpleasant customers they have to fake-smile at during an 8-to-5 shift, how many times they take a break just to breathe fresh air? 

Have you ever contemplated how many exhausted and overworked new immigrants are behind your latest dinnertime restaurant delivery left at your door, that latest Amazon purchase that miraculously showed up on your porch the next day, who’s behind the wheel of your latest Uber trip? Do you know the toll it takes to constantly be worried about getting sick and missing work, when you have no recourses, no wiggle room, no financial safety net, no sick leave to help pay the bills? 

Two years in, many frontline retail workers feel forgotten. They say the refusal by Canada’s grocers to reinstate “hero pay” bonus (a $2-an-hour pay bump issued during the first months of the pandemic) has left them feeling unappreciated as COVID continues to leave many stores short-staffed. 

Two years in, my heart goes out to healthcare workers and teachers, and the exhaustion they all must be facing. But I urge you to also remember all essential frontline workers who have tirelessly and so often anonymously been keeping our society humming along, supplying us with food, toiletries and other essentials. And doing it under such extreme pressure and such extraneous circumstances at the front lines of the COVID virus, with anti-vaccine protesters often flaunting their arrogance and deliberately disrespecting social distances. 

Extend the courtesy of respect 

As tired as I am of this pandemic, I recognize my immense privilege in being able to work from home, with minimal exposure to risks, decreasing both my stress and my chances of catching COVID. Yes, I’ve been prudent, but it’s not because I’m smarter than everyone else that I haven’t caught the virus so far. It’s also because I work from home, I have no kids and I have the financial means to minimize my risks. I recognize this. 

So, please, remember essential frontline retail workers the next time you shop, order in, or wait in line. Demand that measures are there to keep them safe and add your voice to those asking the government to prioritize them for booster shots and N95 masks and their companies to reinstate pandemic bonuses. 

Cut them some slack. Be patient and kind if it takes a little longer at the cash. Tip well. Say thank you and say it often. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.