Calling Frontline Workers “Heroes” is just not enough because working in customer service is really, really hard. In other articles I’ve written for Femonomic, I’ve discussed some of the many jobs I worked as a teenager and into my undergraduate degree. When I was younger, I was awful for hopping from job-to-job and racked up a hefty resume of terrible jobs, including but not limited to serving, fast food, mall retail. I even worked at Walmart for a summer when I was seventeen. I learned pretty quickly from my many minimum-wage jobs that people treat service people like trash.
I know this isn’t a hot take, but until you’ve been a cashier at a place like Walmart, on your feet for eight hours straight while being talked down to and yelled at, you truly can’t appreciate how much it sucks to be in service.
What does it mean to be a hero?
During the first wave of lockdowns in early 2020, outward support for service people took a massive shift for the better. People who weren’t working the frontlines of grocery stores, fast-food joints, and pharmacies were calling service people heroes, and certain businesses were posting signs declaring that “heroes” worked at their establishment.
However cute and rah-rah-rah a sign about heroes might be, service people’s support was majorly performative and empty. Behind the scenes of the restaurants and shops with hero signs, there are actually very few measures set in place to take care of those on the front line. Frontline workers are called heroes but not treated as heroes.
Hazard pay was discussed at length during the first pandemic, and for some workers (depending on the company) was offered for a while varying from weekly bonuses of $50-$100 to an extra $2 hourly. This was particularly insulting considering many of our service workers don’t make a living wage, to begin with, let alone the potential cost of living through a pandemic— safety equipment, sick leave, safe transportation, etc can all add up to a financial burden that many people cannot afford on a salary that isn’t enough in the best of situations.
On top of how little service people are compensated for their work, people don’t seem to be treating them any kinder either. According to an article by Fast Company entitled The Ugly Truth About Tipping Wait Staff During Covid 19 “19% of Americans say they tip less than they did before COVID-19,” and there’re several written articles and instances of mass unkindness towards service people throughout Canada.
Heck, I currently work retail (though not for an essential business) and I’ve been called many names including “short bitch”, “bitch with a fucking attitude”, and “little asshole”, all related to asking someone to wear a mask or use hand sanitizer to keep me safe while shopping in my store.
We as Canadians have embraced a culture of being terribly unkind and aggressive towards service people. It seems to have become more monstrous through the pandemic, regardless of how many “Heroes Work Here” signs that Walmart or Wendy’s hang in their windows.
Why don’t you just Quit?
Many of our service workers go to work feeling afraid every single day. There are times that I go into work feeling fearful for mine and my family’s physical health, as well as my own emotional well-being, as I’ve personally felt physically threatened by customers throughout this pandemic. Whether it be work environments that don’t follow safety protocol, or entirely the risk of being out in the world during such a terrifying stay-home-kind-of-time.
For those of us who can’t work from home, the question of merely quitting is thrown around quite a bit, but it’s just not a viable option for many frontline workers. If a service person were to quit their job, they are technically not eligible for CERB and would have to later pay it back in full. Many Canadians can’t just quit and live off of savings for an unforeseeable amount of time. Many Canadians lack personal savings altogether, let alone to live off of for potentially months ahead. Of course, there is also the fear of having to find a new job later on when things are back to normal.
This obviously leaves many Canadians in a horrible limbo of being terrified to go to work and unable to stay home. This is not heroism as heroism means choosing to be heroic; this is a product of a world that values money over health and companies that are holding front line workers hostage for the sake of business.
What Can We Do?
As we enter the second wave of lockdowns across Ontario being implemented on Boxing Day, as a community, we have a responsibility to be kinder and do more for our frontline workers. We’re going to be going through another few months of tough times, and there’s no need to make things tougher on ourselves or our communities.
- Remain Politically Aware. This is a general rule for life itself but remain aware of who is in power, what rules they’re setting into place, and their intentions.
- Support Businesses who Align with your Personal Beliefs. If you see a business that is taking care of its employees and being responsible throughout the pandemic (i.e. Proper hazard pay, shorter hours, proper safety equipment, measurements in place to protect employees from the public, etc.) consider shopping there more often or even switch to that store from your regular store!
- Shop Local! This one speaks for itself. Shop from local businesses, Amazon doesn’t treat their workers well on the best of days, and Jeff Bezos doesn’t need more money. Buying from a local business means keeping that business open and supporting families in your community.
- Consider Curbside and Delivery Many small businesses and restaurants offer curbside, delivery, or online orders right now. Before going in-person to Walmart, see if you can find the product you’re looking for or something similar to save yourself the trip and to save the service people interaction with others.
- Tip When You Can! I know that restaurants aren’t really open in Ontario during a full lockdown, but there’re still many chances to tip! You can tip on food delivery, food pick-up, drive-thrus, and sometimes just through the average tip jar. A couple of bucks might not seem like anything to you, but it can make a world of difference to the person behind the counter.
- BE NICE TO SERVICE PEOPLE! I hate that this needs to be said but oh my god please just be kind to the people who’re serving you! As a service person, I promise you that we’re trying our best and we are in fact human beings who deserve your respect and patience. Be a smiling face in a sea of jerks, it makes a huge difference to us.
So, calling Frontline Workers “Heroes” is just not enough and bare minimum. It has been really tough for all of us regardless of occupation, though millions of Canadians have been enduring some really rough times. We must take care of one another during the second wave and demand more from the companies that are exploiting underpaid labor.