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Customer service workers as superheroes

Shopkeeper wearing a maskLiving in this pandemic, my thoughts turn often to those on the “front lines” providing essential services, those whose work puts them at risk every day. At this moment, we as a society now seem to be recognizing the courage and sacrifice of the staff in retail food stores, natural and conventional alike. 

 

Living in this pandemic, my thoughts turn often to those on the “front lines” providing essential services, those whose work puts them at risk every day. At this moment, we as a society now seem to be recognizing the courage and sacrifice of the staff in retail food stores, natural and conventional alike.

In mainstream and social media, grocery workers are now being called superheroes. That’s not an exaggeration. First, they had to handle a wave of panic buying, with all the resulting shortages and disruption of the supply chain. Then they had to start complying with an ever-changing regulatory regime for sanitation and social distancing. Some have had to rapidly adapt to call-in or online orders with curb side pick-up or delivery, building the infrastructure as they go. 

Meanwhile, they are serving jittery customers who are likely to be more demanding than usual. A grocery stocker in a natural food store describes their situation this way: “Everyone is stressed – co-workers, customers, delivery drivers and suppliers. Customers come in and unload on us, letting us know of every conspiracy they've heard, or how stressed they are. We’re still expected to give 100 per cent selfless customer service. But we watch the news, too. We’re scared, too.”

The national shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment leaves retail grocery employees exposed to a steady stream of customers and to each other. The very real possibility that the virus can be transmitted unwittingly by people without symptoms further ratchets up the level of anxiety at work. 

Storeowners and managers have responded as best they can. In the effort to protect cashiers, many have been quick to put up plexiglass barriers at the till and to forbid cash transactions. Also, many stores are restricting hours so that surfaces can be sanitized and stocking can be done while customers are not in the aisles. No doubt more steps will be taken by the time this article goes to press.

In recognition of the risks their staff runs, some chains and larger independents are offering “hazardous duty pay” of $2/hour. That kind of premium may be beyond the means of smaller stores. As an employee of a natural retailer describes it: “We aren’t getting laid off or slowing down, and this new EI package is actually paying more than minimum wage full time. So it really brings up mixed feelings over why we're here exposing ourselves when we could be safe at home. But I also understand my employer isn’t a big corporation that can just up the pay.”

This issue points to one of the structural inequities in our global economy. I don’t think I’ve ever met an independent natural food store owner or a food co-op board or manager who didn’t want to pay their staff more if only they could afford it. From conducting hundreds of employee surveys, I conclude that the people working in our industry understand the financial challenges of running a small business and still choose other values – service, community, flexibility – over pay. But the anxiety and risk of working retail in the era of COVID-19 puts that choice in a stark light. 

All the same, from anecdotes in my social media network, I hear stories from retail workers who are proud to serve their communities in a time of need. What I wonder is, on the other side of this pandemic, will our society maintain our newfound respect? I’ll leave the last word to another worker on the front lines: “I hope there will be a change in the ‘customer is always right’ culture, and an understanding that customer service workers are not robots. This crisis shows the need for and value of dependable and hard working people in ‘entry level’ jobs.”

 

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