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Front-line staff in retail and food service got us through COVID-19, and in return, they got much-needed recognition and higher income – until they didn’t. What must be done to give them a fair deal that will last?

A masked barista serves drinks at a Starbucks flagship store in Beijing this past January.Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Rob Csernyik is a journalist and writer based in Saint John. He previously worked as a sales associate and barista. He is writing a book about modern minimum-wage work culture.

My decade behind cash registers and espresso machines ended about nine months before the first COVID-19 cases made headlines. I watched the pandemic unfold from the comfort of a cubicle in New Brunswick, instead of on my phone during 15-minute breaks at a Montreal Starbucks.

There was a sense of relief at narrowly missing the disruption that hit my former industry, causing my erstwhile employer to permanently close hundreds of cafés, including the one I worked at. But it also felt a bit strange to be removed from the customer service frontlines after so long, and I knew the pandemic was going to make an already challenging and precarious industry even tougher.

Yet something remarkable happened in the pandemic’s early days: The long-held disdain – ambivalence, at best – for low-paid customer service workers faded, replaced with a new, vociferous appreciation of their toil. Workers received “hero pay” increases at retailers such as Dollarama, Walmart, Metro, Loblaws and Sobeys – the latter four increasing hourly wages by $2. McDonald’s publicly thanked its owner-operators for pandemic-spurred worker appreciations, which ranged from raises and bonuses to free meals and groceries.

Governments that had cancelled minimum wage increases, like Doug Ford’s in Ontario, singled these workers out for admiration. So did Justin Trudeau, whose party previously criticized the same minimum wage increases that could have benefited some of the very workers he now called heroes. France went a step further than warm and fuzzy statements, including retail workers in a group who received expedited citizenship for their frontline sacrifices. When cashiers, sales clerks, shelf-stockers and fast-food workers heard the cheers and claps and pots clanging in appreciation in the evenings, they knew it was for them, too.

Though it’s seen success, the Fight for $15 movement, which had been active for years, hadn’t caused a widespread reconsideration of the value of minimum wage jobs and those who work them. (In Canada, a $15 minimum wage is currently paid in only three provinces and the three territories. In America, several metropolitan areas offer it but only California does statewide – albeit for workplaces of 26 employees or more.) Even the discussion around workers needing “living wages” to be comfortable, particularly with rising housing costs, hadn’t done it either. The new admiration shown toward low-wage workers felt like a potential impetus to continue this positive growth.

Activists appeal for minimum-wage hikes outside the U.S. Capitol in 2021.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

But instead of continuing apace, esteem for these workers started crumbling within the pandemic’s first few months. In addition to facing business closings, income disruption and the possibility of getting sick and dying on the job, these workers have been berated and harassed, physically assaulted and even killed while enforcing pandemic rules.

Right now, as we cross the pandemic’s two-year-anniversary here in Canada, retail and food services are at a fork in the road. There seems to be less interest in working these jobs, owing in part to poor morale and pay (most ”hero” raises proved temporary), but also because there’s a desire for big changes in these industries.

The pandemic has changed our concept of work, and how it might look in the future. Certain sectors of the work force have enjoyed the ability to take Zoom meetings in their pyjamas from the comfort (and safety) of their homes. Yet those in two of Canada’s top-employing industries – retail and food service – have missed out on innovations (which some might call perks) like these.

I’m concerned that a huge number of employees, like my former colleagues, are being left behind as we collectively move forward and rethink the concept of work. We can’t afford to forget about these vital workers, but we can’t wait for change to happen in legislatures and corporate boardrooms, either. To ensure fairness and equity for those doing necessary, but increasingly untenable jobs, customers must take a good, hard look in the mirror.

Patrons visit a largely deserted Pacific Mall in Markham, Ont., last July. COVID-19 lockdowns closed many of Canada's shopping centres to in-person service.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

I’ve served hundreds of thousands of customers over the years at low-earning jobs, since my first gig making pita sandwiches one summer in high school in Sydney, N.S. For that, I earned $6.10 an hour. I’ve made lattes, and sold papasan chairs, lighting fixtures and candy by the gram. I’ve worked as a cashier in a big box store and a local pharmacy chain. I’ve worked in multiple locations of two international chains, in several provinces, over multiple years. In short, in an industry with high worker turnover, I stayed around long enough to gain some deep insights into customer behaviour.

Sadly, one is how deep-rooted contempt for the minimum wage class of workers is. After writing a personal essay about working these jobs into my thirties, I decided, masochistically, to read the comment section. According to the vox populi, I was broken and lacked ambition – someone who made bad life choices or was “at the very least incapable of making strategic decisions about his life.” I was an “apathetic loser” – failed, dumb and unmotivated. I served as a reminder that minimum skill equals minimum wage. Being broke is a choice, didn’t I know? “This dude is an idiot,” one of the more imaginative commenters wrote. “Hopefully he’s living in a dumpster now.” (I’m not.)

These comments came less than a year before workers like me were bestowed a hero’s mantle, so you can imagine why I found the shift baffling. If that sort of appreciation had been there over my entire working career, it would have been a different experience and the boost in respect and dignity would have spilled into my interactions with management, co-workers and customers.

The negativity is perplexing. In today’s society people are encouraged to be more equitable, just and thoughtful toward a wide range of groups on the margins. This rarely gets applied to the heavily female and non-white customer service work force. Instead, these workers are considered worthy of scorn, vilified with the sorts of labels I received from the internet’s peanut gallery.

A woman shines shoes in Toronto's Financial District.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There are a lot of elements shaping and perpetuating these attitudes, but I think two play outsized roles: how the definition of success has shifted in the internet era, and portrayals of low-wage workers in popular culture.

Success was once a more modest concept. I’m 35 years old. If you asked my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents at the same age how they defined success, there would be wildly varying responses. It used to be a home, a pension and a college fund for the children. A million dollars was a dream sold along with lottery tickets; now it’s a starter home in Whitby, Ont. Even where I live in New Brunswick, according to a recent report, the living wage in our capital, Fredericton, is presently almost $10 an hour above the minimum wage.

As the internet matured, and entrepreneurs started making fortunes in this new land – most recently during the crypto boom – people who even a generation ago might have viewed success as a steady paycheque are now chasing much bigger goals. Some barriers to wealth have dropped: high-earning potential isn’t limited to law school or MBA grads, for instance.

When I was a teenager seeking a first job, or looking for a summer gig in university, I blanketed big box retailers and fast food joints with résumés. But for young folks today the “traditional” first job can seem unambitious or unexciting – and that’s before you factor in the low pay and the low social status they confer. Today the larger potential returns in plotting a startup, or (depending on the day) trading crypto or NFTs might seem like better uses of time, despite the inherent risks.

A woman passes a McDonald's outlet in New York's Times Square.Kena Betancur/Getty Images

There’s also the way minimum wage workers get reflected back to us in the media. Over the past several decades, as shopping centres and big box stores became an entrenched part of our economies, and multinational chains took over our main streets and malls, this class of workers became present in every community. And as they became part of life, they got parodied, critiqued and reflected in the media we consume.

Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture helped popularize the term McJob. “A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector,” he wrote. “Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.” This concept has been granted legitimacy by one of the English language’s gatekeepers, with the Oxford English Dictionary succinctly defining it as “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects.”

Many Hollywood characters working minimum wage jobs are portrayed as dimwitted, obstinate or profoundly annoying. The website TVTropes, which documents frequently used characterizations, includes headings for low-wage work like “Burger Fool” and “Soul-Sucking Retail Job.”

“There are certain boring, low-paying jobs most people fear being stuck with when they grow up: burger flipper, garbage man, janitor, retail store greeter, etc.,” reads its “Happiness in Minimum Wage” entry. “This character has one of these jobs ... and wouldn’t have it any other way.” (Think Kristen Wiig’s overenthusiastic cashier “Target Lady” on Saturday Night Live.)

Minimum wage characters were abundant in nineties-era sitcoms as comic relief, like despondent shoe salesman Al Bundy on Married… With Children, or the squeaky-voiced teen on The Simpsons who shows up in a variety of workplaces, using his hand to fetch a taco from boiling oil or meekly asking Homer to stop teasing the drive-thru order box. Many even devoted plotlines where characters dive into low-paid customer service for an episode, often played for laughs and born of financial desperation. The sitcom Superstore, which portrayed issues like low wages, working short-staffed and pandemic-era essential work over its six-season run was a recent, rare exception. In today’s era of must-see prestige dramas, this class of fictional characters barely exists.

However, for more than a decade, low-wage workers have received the reality TV treatment on Undercover Boss, where many are portrayed as pitiable. At the show’s core are their hardships, revealed to executives working incognito alongside them and mitigated with gifts such as cars, college funds or homes in the show’s final, tear-filled minutes. (A long-defunct Canadian edition highlighted Home Hardware, Mary Brown’s and Second Cup among other companies.)

In reality, my coworkers and I weren’t creatures to pity. Many were students, or were artists in need of a side-gig, while others looked to grow into a more senior role in the company. There are workers new to Canada looking for experience, parents supporting families, retirees supplementing their income and youth taking their first forays into the working world. The reasons people do the work are multidimensional. You do not need a full accounting of a person’s decisions in order to respect them.

Outside Ottawa's Rideau Centre, a pedestrian waves at staff in a street-facing store on Feb. 22 as police evacuated the mall for a security incident. The Rideau Centre had only reopened that day after the antigovernment protests demanding an end to all COVID-19 restrictions.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

It didn’t take long for the reverence toward minimum wage workers to fade. By April, 2020, there were reports of customers spitting and coughing on workers at grocery stores and coffee shops, among other workplaces.

And then, as a wider range of businesses opened up in summer 2020, tales of customers behaving badly started to proliferate.

It’s been suggested that some customers were pushed too far by COVID-19 and the accompanying restrictions. One KPMG report revealed 37 per cent of those surveyed found dealing with supermarkets and grocers harder once the pandemic began, and 43 per cent said the same of non-grocery stores selling items such as clothing, fitness or technology.

But for all the challenges the public dealt with going shopping or grabbing fast food, the workers were more aggressively burdened – suddenly handed a laundry list of things to do above and beyond their regular job. They knew there was little access to sick days in the best-case scenario, while death loomed in the worst.

Workers needed to keep people physically distanced. To do extra cleaning and sanitizing. To make sure customers were walking the right way of arrows on the floor. To ensure they were wearing masks. And to deal with people lingering and treating their outings like a social occasions. (And, later, they had to check vaccine passports.) All of this without a real blueprint, as the situation was so unprecedented. No wonder the term “enforcement fatigue” has been used to describe the weight of this new role.

And, instead of accepting the necessity of this enforcement, some customers started fighting back, killing morale in an industry where it was already in short supply. As one worker put it to this paper last year, it felt like they were going from “heroes to zeroes.”

In a February and March, 2021, survey, researchers from the University of Toronto and Angus Reid Forum noticed respondents describing a perception that their autonomy was being taken away by others in power. And this rage became a bigger part of the pandemic the longer it went on. But why then do minimum wage workers face a significant portion of this rage?

I don’t believe that after culturally treating these workers as insignificant and powerless, they are suddenly flipped 180 degrees, and imbued with outsized powers. And I don’t think it’s that, as frontline workers, they are somehow the avatars of their corporations. Or as people encouraging public-health rules the avatars of health officers or politicians from Justin Trudeau on down. I think it’s that people follow deeply-rooted beliefs about these jobs to their most distressing end: getting mad at these workers because they feel it’s without consequence. Now, they can explain it away under some guise of personal freedom instead of being a jerk.

This is why it’s chilling to see so many in-store promotions reminding customers to be kind to employees. It’s an acknowledgment of how much worse things are since the pandemic. That a basic social nicety has to be begged for, and that it has to be couched in softened language because the truth is so uncomfortable.

Some of the pandemic’s most disturbing impulses have been caught on tape, and repackaged as viral content – like people protesting at hospitals or speeches at protest rallies. Among this well-stocked library are videos that went viral in minimum wage environments, like overcrowded malls and chain stores low-wage workers had to contend with. Videos of customers coughing or sneezing on workers and arguing about mask mandates exist, as well as others where they harass them with junk science and angry lectures.

This level of conflict de-escalation wasn’t part of these jobs before the pandemic, and if anything like the minimal conflict de-escalation training I received as a barista, it wasn’t true to life. It neglected to account for how difficult real customers can be, compared to scripted ones. While there’s a measure of justice in some of these videos – the people being rude to staff and not following orders are usually turfed – there’s no good reason workers need to endure these arguments.

In several instances, retail workers were killed during these confrontations. These include an unidentified gas station employee in Germany, Michigan dollar store security guard Calvin Munerlyn and Atlanta-area supermarket cashier LaQuitta Willis.

“While checking out, the customer, identified as Victor Lee Tucker, Jr., 30, of Palmetto, GA, got into an argument with a cashier about his face mask,” reads a statement from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. “Tucker left the store without making his purchase, but immediately returned inside. Tucker walked directly back to the cashier, pulled out a handgun and shot her.” (Two others, including a second cashier, were wounded.)

This sort of risk is not what workers sign up for, and the fact that injuries and deaths have resulted from innocent requests to wear a mask cannot be fully separated from the broader cultural view that these jobs and workers have less value than others. I have little doubt that there will come a day, sometime in the future, where we will look back in horror at how minimum-wage workers were treated – not only during the pandemic, but before. In hindsight it will appear even worse than it does today.

Union representatives in Seattle rally in Cal Anderson Park this past January to support Starbucks locations that announced plans to unionize. A month earlier, the formation of the first-ever Starbucks union at an outlet in Buffalo, N.Y., inspired others to organize.JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

For all the talk of large swathes of people quitting work in the Great Resignation, there’s also discussions about what I call “the Great Revision” – where how we work is being reimagined. It feels like many jobs have been redesigned to meet the moment, such as the ability to work from home and offering more flexible schedules.

But you can’t be a cashier or a barista from home. A four-day work week at the same pay as five might be doable for a white-collar job, but is likely too imaginative to play out in most of the customer service realm. What has been deemed totally acceptable (even innovative) for some classes of workers is, for minimum wage workers, off-limits.

There are signs some employees are taking the fate of their work into their own hands. For instance, multiple Starbucks locations are moving to unionize across the United States. In Canada, several Indigo bookstores also unionized during the pandemic.

When thinking about the lack of wages and time and privilege many of these workers have, it speaks volumes of why their taking this step is so dramatic. But it’s not their responsibility alone to revamp an industry to be more equitable. To reform minimum wage work is a dizzying process, one not helped by inflation hitting a three-decade high last month of 5.7 per cent. It requires a lot of concurrent work from multiple parties such as businesses and politicians, but I believe customers are the most important in this equation.

Customers vote with their money (by spending it at companies that treat workers fairly, for instance) and at the ballot box, by supporting parties and politicians willing to champion higher wages. After all, many of us interact with people working low-wage customer service jobs several times a week, if not more. The heightened anger customers express to workers in the pandemic doesn’t chasten or rebuke a company for policies a customer doesn’t like. It doesn’t stick it to the politicians in city hall, legislature or parliament. It doesn’t earn a customer respect, or magically pass their feelings onto headquarters.

All it does is make work harder for people getting paid below-average wages to keep normalcy in the lives of others through the pandemic.

I hope that we don’t miss this moment to create change. It’s said this is a once-in-a-century pandemic, and yet this is what it took for an entire class of workers to – almost – get respect that they deserve. Many lessons learned early on in the pandemic were forgotten quickly. This can’t be one of them. We can’t wait another century.

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