In spite of the fact that I hate the tedium of it, I take pride in the way I perform my job. I am passionate about Customer Service. It’s what I do best.
But that is not why I now remained at work, in the midst of a pandemic.
I stayed for one simple reason: financial survival. Mine and his.
It was just that stark.
Every time I went to work I weighed our health and lives against our economic reality.
Every time I went to work I weighed the odds of possible exposure – face to face with hundreds of people – against the possibility that I might bring the virus home to my partner and put his life at risk.
And every time I went to work I wondered just how many more times I was going to do this.
I was certainly not alone. All kinds of people – from health care workers to truck drivers to cleaners to school teachers, and many more, faced the same dilemma. And a lot of those people were far worse off than I was.
At what point would the rate of infection be too high to risk going to work – or anywhere else? When we hit 100 deaths? 200? When confirmed cases were in the thousands?
My math skills are lacking at the best of times, but this…the equation of our survival…Exposure to one person multiplied by average customers per hour, multiplied by 9 hour day, plus environment, plus risk during transport multiplied by 2 (to work and back home again) divided by my own immune system response multiplied by the stupidity and carelessness of at least 20% of the general public….
How much longer can I take this risk? How badly do I need this job? Can I get a different job at a time when so many people are at risk of losing theirs…?
All this shit was running through my brain day and night. It was wrecking me. Little wonder when 24/7 it was all you were hearing about.
The Government started giving a daily briefing detailing the latest advice, decisions, and information. The local news kept a tally of the dead, confirmed, and recovered in our area. The networks did investigative pieces on how other affected nations were coping, the ongoing search for a vaccine, and the latest on the pathogen’s symptoms and treatment.
Finally I decided to talk things over with my Manager. She was well aware of my underlying health conditions. They were a matter of record, having been documented in my personal file. But it didn’t matter. Because I was certainly not an isolated case.
Many of my co-workers had underlying health conditions of their own. Serious risk factors like COPD, asthma, and diabetes. A few were in very fragile positions. Cancer survivors. Pregnant. Heart issues. And all of us had partners/children/aging parents/siblings etc. Some of them were vulnerable too. And there is a well-documented correlation between poverty, low-paid employment, and ill health and vulnerability.
I spoke to her anyway, and asked what my options were. There really weren’t any – if I wanted to keep my job and not become homeless.
She said she empathised, but made it clear that if I didn’t show up for a scheduled shift, I would not be paid. Not only that, I would likely face sanctions and/or disciplinary action too.
This was not her call. She took her lead from our corporate offices in London. And their position was clear: We were an essential service. We were open for business.
Sucks to be you, get back to work. You. Are expendable.
The Government had been telling people with underlying conditions to self-isolate for weeks – but until it actually stated that people with underlying conditions must stay at home, and that the Government would cover their wages, my company (and I’m sure others like it) were not supporting workers who needed or wanted to remain at home.
They were worried about their shareholders, their profits, their viability. To an extent, that was fair enough. Retail shops had been struggling on the High street for some time. There were fears many would simply not be able to survive. And that was before the pandemic hit.
Now things were even more grim.
‘WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER..’
That was the mantra, the message coming from our company’s corporate upper management.
But it was, of course, complete and utter horseshit.
As always, the responsibility for sustaining our business and its customers essential needs, had been shifted on to the lowest paid workers in the place.
My co-workers and I were on the shop floor facing down uncertainty, washing our hands like we had run out of OCD meds, and trying to enforce some sort of social distancing.
And while we worried about bringing home a deadly virus, the suits in the higher echelons of our corporate board room were taking meetings online, safely sequestered in their homes.
While my colleagues and I were worried about disciplinary action or being fired for not turning up, our boss was still collecting his full seven figure salary, including large bonuses and a pension payments.
No. We were most definitely not in this together.
And therein lies the rub.
Anyone could potentially get the virus.
But the more affluent you were, the more effectively and easily you could disengage and lessen your risk.
You had more options. You could stay home. You had more space between yourself and your neighbours, less population density in your community. You had the extra money to stock up on necessities, or have someone stock up for you. You could order online and/or drive to collect items in the safety of your own vehicle. Or have someone do that for you too. You did not need to rely on public transport.
Self-isolation was a privilege. One not all of us could afford.
And as is so typically the case in our world, those of us who had the least, were risking the most.
My workplace had finally introduced hand sanitiser, and there were now gloves available for any staff wishing to use them. And at long last, social distancing was now in place. But it was down to us, the workers, to enforce it.
I am an assertive person. I had no problem asking customers to stand back or distance themselves, but many other members of staff found this difficult. Especially the softer spoken or more timid among us, and particularly if the shopper decided to be difficult or abusive in return, which was happening more and more.
Schools had finally closed so children and teachers could isolate, but instead people were now coming into shops with all their kids in tow. And kids don’t social distance well, especially if their parents were useless at it themselves.
Some were obviously stuck – single parents with younger children or parents whose partners were still working. With no grandparents and no childcare, there was no one to stay with the child. But in other more worrying cases you’d see two adults or an adult with a teenager along, surrounded by a mass of younger kids.
One of them should have been waiting outside with the children while the other shopped. But nope. There they were, seven or eight of them, all bunched up in the line in front of me, with the little ones touching everything within reach and often sticking things in their mouths, as kids do…
We also had a lot of older shoppers, who – although they were in the highest risk group – often found the new measures confusing or simply forgot about them. These customers required time and sensitivity, which other shoppers did not have. And that was before the pandemic.
I knew I was not alone in my ongoing anxiety. My co-workers confided to me that they too, were worried. From sleepless nights and tension headaches to anxiety attacks. I sometimed found myself tearing up at the till when no one was there…
On our internal company intranet, I saw post after post from workers at our shop locations all over the UK, discussing their own fears and vulnerability. Although the circumstances were unique to each of us, I heard the same refrain echoed over and over again. It was summed up by one female co-worker in five succinct words:
‘I do not feel safe.’
To have to go to a job where you do not feel safe, that…is a cruel economic reality.
One night I came home after work to find my partner visibly upset in the kitchen.
He had been watching updates on Coronavirus all day, and told me he was frightened I would bring this thing home to him. He was sure that if he contracted the virus he would not survive.
So how do you self-isolate in the same home? A lot of us were now asking this question. For health care workers, it was a desperate situation. For the rest of us too.
It was clear I was now responsible for keeping both of us healthy, and yet I still had to face the masses. It was a difficult balancing act. It weighed heavily.
A few days later I was back at work, serving an elderly woman who was fully geared-up in mask, gloves, and glasses.
As we made conversation she confided that her daughter would be furious if she knew she was out.
“But I had to get my tea and bread,’ she said, ‘And my daughter is working flat out. She has no time to go to the shop for me, especially when all I need is a few small things…And you can’t get it delivered if your order is small.”
I told her I understood, but that in my opinion her daughter was right to be cautious.
“Oh I know,’ she agreed, “She was on the telephone to me crying, saying, ‘Please mommy, you have no idea how bad this is… ‘ “
“She’s right. “ I replied.
“It’s not that, ” she said, shaking her head.
She looked around to see if anyone was near.
“My daughter is an emergency respiratory nurse,’ she said confidentially, “she has been treating some of these poor people who are infected.”
Then she lowered her voice even more.
“I shouldn’t be saying this, but she told me they have totally cleared the first floor of one of the hospitals.”
“To make room for more critical care beds?”
The woman looked at me sadly and shook her head.
“No love. To put in fridges…For a morgue…”
She gathered up her purchases up and waved, “I am going straight home after this, and won’t be out again.”
I waved back and wished her well. But I thought about what she had told me the rest of the night. I had to make a decision.
Although deeply conflicted, I finally formulated a plan.
It was now the third week of March. I had only three more shifts until the end of the month.
I decided I would finish those, and then use my full allotment of holidays, hoping that by the time they ran out, the Government would also have some sort of plan.
This would buy me about five weeks to remain isolated at home, and meant I would still be paid.
I called our GP and asked her advice. She posted me out a letter stating that due to my partners medical condition, she was recommending we self-isolate.
That changed everything.
This allowed me to remain at home without being counted as holiday time. And I would still be paid.
I finished my shift that day knowing I would not return for at least six weeks. The sense of relief was palpable as I closed my locker for the final time, but I felt tremendous guilt at leaving my co-workers behind to continue.
That guilt would turn to anger when I checked in with them over the weeks after my departure, and heard that we still had no plexiglass screening installed and there was often no gloves available. But there were still crowds of shoppers – who were not vigilant about distancing.
But I was out. And we were safe.
I still had to count down the next 14 days to be sure hadn’t contracted the virus on my last day…
So I left work on March 21st, 2020.
And the very next day, Downing Street in London announced that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had contracted the virus.
Only a few days after that, he was admitted to hospital.
A week later my company put me and many of my colleagues on furlough.
The Government had said it would pay 80% of the regular wages of any furloughed employee, and – fair play to my company – they did top up remaining the remaining 20%.
So those of us on furlough were fortunate enough to get our full pay, and those who were still working got an extra 15% on top of theirs, as a ‘thank-you’ bonus.
In my opinion, they should have gotten much more for the risk they were taking. MUCH much more. Like, a big percentage of the CEO’s bonus perhaps…
But I was just so, so relieved and grateful to get a break from the stress of the preceeding months and know we were finally secure.
We shielded ourselves as best we could, and I enjoyed the quiet solitude and peace of mind isolation brought.
I do believe that there are things in this world I would die for.
But £9.00 an hour is not one of them.