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 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.
The UK and Ireland were now in full lock-down. No one was going out unless it was because they were a ‘key’ worker, or needed medication or food. Parks were closed. Businesses were closed. The high street was a ghost town.
Each day before I was due to go in to work I weighed our health and lives against our economic reality.
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, cleaners to school teachers, public transit providers, 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 as I took public 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. Ongoing treatments for serious illnesses. 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.
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.
We are all in this together.
But it was, of course, complete and utter horseshit.
Instead – as always – the responsibility for sustaining our business, and its customers day-to-day essential needs, had been shifted on to the lowest paid workers in the whole fucking place.
So, my co-workers and I were left to face down the uncertainty of an evolving pandemic.
We did our best to lessen our risk, washing our hands like we had run out of OCD meds, and trying to enforce some sort of social distancing, while customers leaned over us, coughed in our faces and generally treated us as disposable.
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 at our hourly wage job, our CEO was still collecting his full seven figure salary. Not only that, he actually had the audacity to accept a large bonus and pension payments on top of it!
Exactly how do these people justify being paid that kind of money? (I guess they don’t have to.) How do they get these jobs in the first place? (please tell me so I can do it) What the hell kind of qualifications do you need for that? (I want to sign up.)
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 by this point, so that teachers and children could isolate. But instead of doing so, people were now coming into shops with their kids in tow.
As a rule, children do not socially distance well, especially if their parents are useless at it themselves.
So this herd of humanity of varying sizes was problematic at best. Obviously single parents or parents whose partners were still working were stuck, and had to bring the kids. With restricted access to extended family members and no childcare available, there was no one else.
But in many cases it was common to see two or even three adults – or an adult with a child in their late teens or twenties – stomping around with a hoard of kids clustered near their cart.
At least one of those ‘care-givers’ should have been waiting outside the store with the kids, but nope, there they were…all seven or eight of them bunched up in a line right in front of me, with the little ones touching everything within reach and often sticking what they found in their mouths, as kids will do…
And they were not the only ones who needed reminding about social distancing.
We have a lot of older shoppers. Although these people were among the most vulnerable group in terms of susceptibility, they often found the new safety measures confusing, or simply forgot about them out of habit. These customers required time, patience, courtesy and sensitivity – something which other shoppers did not seem to have.
Meanwhile, I knew I was not alone in my ongoing anxiety. Many of my co-workers confided that they too, were worried. From sleepless nights and panic attacks to tension headaches and breathing issues. Everyone had something.
Many had older, ailing parents they could no longer visit. Or they had young children at home. Or both. They might also have health issues of their own, and/or vulnerable kids or partners.
Sometime I found myself tearing up at my till with anxiety when no one was there….
On our internal company intranet, there was post after post from workers at other locations all over the UK, discussing their own fears and vulnerability.
Although the circumstances were unique to each of us, I was hearing 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 convinced I would bring this thing home to him.
He was sure if he did contract the virus, he would not survive. Or that I wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure I would either. Obesity and cardio-health was a risk factor, on top of my immune issues, and there is a reason this blog is called FAT angry old broad.
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. Some people had even moved into their garden sheds.
We had no shed.
But it was clear I was now responsible for keeping both me and ‘him indoors’ healthy. Yet I still had to face the masses in order to keep my job. It was a difficult balancing act and it weighed heavy.
A few days later I was 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 at her being in the store instead of isolating at home.
“But I had to get tea and bread,” she said, “My daughter is working flat out. She has no time to go to the shop for me and drop it off, especially when all I need is a few small things…and shops won’t deliver if you only order a little bit.”
I told her I understood, but that in my opinion, her daughter was right to be cautious.
“Oh, yes,” she nodded, “She was on the telephone to me last night crying, and saying, ‘Please mommy, you have no idea how bad this is…!’
She leaned in conspiratorially, looking around to see if anyone might overhear.
“I shouldn’t be saying this…” she began in a hushed voice, “but my daughter is an emergency respiratory nurse. She has been treating some of the poor people who are infected, and she told me that they have just totally cleared the entire first floor of the hospital she is in.”
“To make room for more critical care beds?” I asked.
The woman looked at me as if I was an idiot and shook her head sadly.
“No love,” she said simply, “For the fridges. For a morgue.”
She gathered up her purchases and waved.
“I’m going straight home after this and won’t be out again. You should too.”
“I wish I had that option,’ I told her.
And then she was gone.
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. In the meantime I called our GP. She posted me out a letter stating that she was recommending we self-isolate.
And that changed everything.
It 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 to work for at least six weeks. An immense sense of relief washed over me as I closed my locker for the final time, but I felt tremendous guilt about leaving the rest of my co-workers behind. That guilt would turn to anger when I checked in with them in 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. We were safe. At least I hoped so. 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, 10 Downing Street announced that the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had contracted Coronavirus.
A few days after that, he was admitted to hospital.
A week after that, my retail shop – like my other two jobs – put myself and many other workers on furlough. Those who remained behind were told they would be paid an extra 15% on top of their regular pay. But considering the risk they were taking for our business and our customers, I think they should have all shared in our CEO’s hefty bonus payment….
And so this is where things sit at the time of this writing.
I do believe that there are things in this world I would die for.
But £9.00 an hour is not one of them.