Respect for the Essential Workers

Social distancing and masks are musts right now. Let's not forget to be kind as well!

One of the most difficult jobs I’ve worked was being a cashier. I worked at a busy retail chain store while in University, to pay for my day to day expenses. The reason I found the job to be so difficult was 2-fold: a lack of appreciation (getting disrespected by angry customers was routine), and a lack of fulfillment (what difference am I making to the world?). To be honest, it was also a very lonely job. “How are you today? Did you find everything you needed?” was the line I repeated to hundreds of customers everyday, without any real connection. The majority of my 6 to 10 hour shift was spent standing in the same spot, with a half hour lunch break, ringing customers. I would turn into auto-pilot mode. I didn’t even have to think much to do my job, my fingers and arms had memorized exactly which keys on the register to hit, how to bag the items, where all the cigarettes were, etc. 

One day, it was snowing heavily, and I had to be at work. Schools closed, most offices closed and asked employees to work from home, and many stores closed as well, but my store did not. Retail stores often stay open regardless of the weather. I started driving over to work – a half hour drive – and got stuck in extremely difficult driving conditions on the highway. My car was not equipped for this. It was a poorly maintained second-hand that was meant just to last a year or two so I could save up for a better one. The road had not been plowed yet. Long story short, my car’s tires couldn’t grip the road, kept sliding erratically, and eventually I lost control. My car spun sharply more than 180 degrees while drifting into the shoulder lane (thankfully I was on the far-right lane so I did not hit any cars) and only stopped thanks to the hill of soft snow acting as a cushion. I was safe, but extremely nervous, and the car was miraculously undamaged. There was an 18-wheeler truck right next to me so I knew it could have ended much worse. A very nice police officer happened to be on the highway, saw me, and turned his emergency lights on to make all the other cars stop so that I could turn my car around and get back on the road. I told him I wanted to turn back and get home, but he said at this point, I’m closer to my work so I might as well play safe and just get there. He drove with me for a while just to get me to work. Great guy.

When I got to work, I told the story to my manager and co-workers at the time and I remember seeing unconcerned reactions. “Really? Wow. Anyway, could you make sure you fix the items by the main register?” My experience was considered ordinary, I realized, or perhaps, I was too ordinary and people die everyday, right? But in my shoes, just getting to work had turned into a great risk on that day. Shortly after, I put in my resignation notice.

When I quit my job, I think I felt my reality was that while my contributions weren’t perceived so great to demand more pay, my well-being (or lack thereof) was also not really a matter of concern for my peers and managers. Add to that the harsh treatment from customers, and the snowy winter days which gave me some driving-phobia. It was a cold environment, both literally and figuratively.

Since then, I’ve harbored a great deal of respect for workers that today are being labeled ‘essential’ – retail employees, drivers, police officers, nurses, doctors, and many others – anyone who cannot perform their job remotely, but whose participation is absolutely required to keep the world running. Truth is, these jobs were always essential and most of us already knew that, but it has never been so evident as now.

Cashiers who are still working right now, I feel, are taking risks every day similarly to the risk I took on that snowy day. But their risk is greater, because my resignation was under otherwise normal circumstances; these workers choose to continue working under a pandemic. One of the employees at a nearby grocery store, which we visit often, was diagnosed with COVID-19 over the weekend; it’s a very real threat to them. They are choosing to come in not only for a paycheck, but to keep us alive and comfortable, and they’re putting their health on the line to do so. They can go home satisfied every day that they made a difference, and we are very grateful to them for it, now more than ever before. I hope – and I believe – that we can also keep that sentiment for all types of workers even after this pandemic ends and life returns to normality, because everyone wants to feel fulfilled and appreciated for their job.

One of the side-effects of this terrible pandemic is that it is beating some good habits into us, as well as general concern for others, which we always needed. Wash your hands often for at least 20 seconds – we should have always been doing so, but how many actually did (I’m looking at you, office Bob who sprinkled his hands for 2 seconds with no soap after peeing at the urinal)? Stay home if you’re sick. Be kind to others. Say thank you to your local store’s employees, and treat them as you would treat a friend, even if your coupon doesn’t scan or an item is out-of-stock. At the very least, let’s admit their jobs are not easy, and they never were. Let’s continue these good habits and carry this renewed awareness to post-pandemic life.