Leaving a long-term job during a pandemic is a non-event…
The Coronavirus pandemic has left us reeling in a multitude of ways. The spectre of possible illness and death, the looming axe of business closures, changes to our lifestyles and personal interaction. The virus has separated and bereaved families, and left many of the most vulnerable feeling lonely and isolated.
The constant economic chaos is also destabilising our present and our future. Jobs and businesses are disappearing. Entire sectors have been decimated. The pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives profoundly and it’s legacy will continue to be felt long after we come out the other side.
This past month I left a job I had for 15 years – and I was not alone.
My company — a well-known British retailer — had already made the decision to shut some stores and reduce staffing levels months before the pandemic hit. It was part of a ‘restructuring’ scheme designed to make the business more viable and strengthen the brand.
Like most retail giants, we had been struggling to compete on the high street. The popularity of online shopping, growing overhead costs, and competition from trendier or cheaper stores was taking its toll. We had brand loyalty, quality products and excellent customer service on our side, but that did not seem to be enough to rack up the numbers anymore. We were not the only game in town. Our competitors were upping the stakes.
With our profits shrinking and customer footfall declining, it was decided a dramatic shift was needed, and quickly.
So the call was made from the corporate board room on high: we have to shut some of those less profitable stores. We need to convince long-term workers close to retirement age to leave early. And we will probably need to cut jobs.
But, you know, only the lowest paid jobs, of course…
A company like mine is seriously top-heavy.
Our CEO took home a salary of £810,000 plus bonuses this year, in spite of the pandemic and ongoing ‘restructuring.’ Last year he received a pay packet of £1.6million — which included £203,000 of pension payments and a £621,000 bonus. He is only one of many titled corporate players within the higher echelons of the business.
I’m not suggesting these people didn’t earn the money, (heaven forbid) but in view of this, job cuts and store closures are a bitter pill to swallow. Particularly if you’re earning just over the mandated minimum hourly wage and the job in question is your own.
Maybe we could start by abolishing the bonuses for higher earners instead?
When Covid hit, things went from bad to disastrous.
Large or small, businesses everywhere struggled to stay afloat.
My own store was located in our city center. The ‘food’ section was deemed ‘essential’ and so, was able to remain open during the slew of lockdowns, circuit breakers, tiered restrictions — whatever the anti-covid tactic of the day was.
But other sections of the shop were not permitted to be open. With the ever-changing closure determinations and so many people now working from home….shoppers were just not coming into the city center. It was obvious cuts were coming. It was just a question of time.
Just before the UK Government furlough scheme was due to expire, (not coincidentally) our company began to float the prospect of ‘voluntary redundancy.’
‘Redundancy’ is a term that most folks in North American are unfamiliar with, but it’s used a lot in the UK. By definition it means ‘being excessive’ or ‘repetitive.’
Get the hint?
In terms of employment it means, ‘bye bye.’ You are not exactly fired…but you are no longer employed either. It’s essentially a buy-out. A severance package. They pay you to leave.
And when you work in a low-wage job, they don’t pay you much to leave, either. Forget how hard it will be to find new work during a pandemic, when businesses are folding faster than a Japanese origami whiz. Here’s your cheque, now fuck off.
Something, is better than nothing, right?
My company asked for ‘volunteers’ to accept it’s redundancy package, but my co-workers and I were under no illusions. We were told if there were not enough ‘volunteers,’ the business would have to make ‘some hard decisions’- and initiate criteria to determine who would be asked to leave first.
If you still managed to avoid the cull, you were told to expect changes. You might be required to work different hours than you had before, and/or on different days. You might even be required to relocate to another store. Hours could be reduced or extended, depending on need. There were no guarantees. If you had a mortgage? If you were a carer or single parent? Or any parent? Or had a second job?
The business had to be your priority. You had to be ‘flexible.’
Otherwise, there’s the door.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am keenly aware that my co-workers and I are tremendously fortunate to be offered any kind of severance package.
Several large, well-established stores have simply gone bust lately – leaving former staff reeling and horrifingly lost. Some had to fight for their pensions too. Imagine the shock of that. You walk into work one day only to be told to go home. That you will have to collect your things later because there’s a padlock on the door and security is not answering the phone.
Even as I sat here writing this piece, news came that Debenhams — who have 124 locations all across the UK — has begun a liquidation process. 12,000 jobs are at risk.
Debenhams have additional locations throughout the world, so potentially we are talking about even more losses than all those here in the UK.
Debenhams is a great store. I love the place. I spent a lot of money there. The staff were always lovely. It breaks my heart that the rug has been pulled out from under them.
Debenhams’ closure is further evidence, if any were needed, of the current economic crisis and the decimation of our high streets. It is a tragedy for workers and customers alike. It is a disgrace that no one has stepped up to save it. Places like this are integral to so many towns and cities.
In Belfast for example, Debenhams is the largest store in the Castle Court shopping mall, in the very heart of city centre. The loss will greatly impact nearby trade and the continued viability of the entire shopping complex.
In fact Debbenhams are often the largest store in whatever town or city they are located in. Losing large, established businesses like this can have a serious domino effect.
According to recent reports, UK retail has already seen the loss of 170,000 jobs in 2020, surpassing the total for the two previous years combined, and the Centre for Retail Research predicts that over 230,000 jobs will ultimately be lost from the high street this year — with 20,000 shops closing their doors for good.
In light of all this, I gave my company’s redundancy offer a lot of thought.
I only worked there part-time, but I was good at it and liked the customers and the people I worked with. It paid the lion’s share of my monthly bills and leaving before I had something else in place was a gamble. It meant I would have to find another job almost immediately – at age 56 – and I would have to compete with the largest influx of unemployed workers since the recession of 1984.
But it did pay poorly, and I had gotten too comfortable with its tedium. Maybe it was time to gamble – on myself. After all, I’d already lost 15 years I’d never get back…
It was a stark choice, but I didn’t much like the alternative either.
Staying would also have meant giving up my second part-time job in the toursim sector, which I actually enjoyed.
Due to virus restrictions that workplace had been closed almost a year, but I was loathe to part with it.
However in order to remain ‘flexible’ in my current retail position, I would have had to leave. And I would have lost the potential for any additional income by doing so.
Another factor was also niggling me.
Traditionally, the first few months of every new year are a slow trading period for retail. If further job cuts came at my company, who was to say a second redundancy package would be on offer? Would that package would pay the same amount as the one before me now?
So. Stay on a sinking ship and hope it recovers, or jump into the tiny lifeboat bobbing on a torrid sea below?
And a lot of my colleagues came with me.
Overall my company was cutting up to 6,000 jobs.
Each store was given a different target number of staff redundancies, depending on the criteria determined by head office.
It was decided that at my own store, 39 staff members needed to accept the redundancy offer. But any fears management might have had about what to do if they could not convince 39 of us to depart willingly soon evaporated.
Over 100 immediately applied.
In the end my store lost nearly 1/3 of its staff in a single action.
Almost all of those people had decades of service with the company. Decades of knowledge. Decades of training.
Out the door.
Just like that.
The impact of losing so many long-serving and experienced staff members at once will reverberate long after our initial departure.
It will be a jarring and traumatic shift for our store, our customers, and our remaining colleagues.
Those of us who left didn’t feel great either. I expected relief. Instead I got anxiety and an unexpected void.
Leaving, meant saying goodbye to coworkers who were also friends; people I had toiled beside for over a decade. I knew all about their lives and families, their health and habits, likes and dislikes, but thanks to the virus there were no farewell parties. Those of us leaving were walking away without even a hug, because we had to observe social distancing guidelines.
So there were no ‘good luck in the future’ lunches, or pints with workmates after quitting time. No cake, no balloons, no streamers, no cards.
The covid ‘elbow bump’ just does not cut it.
And because we all left at different times on different days — and there were so many of us going at once — there was no formal send-off. One by one we cleaned out our lockers, handed over our keys and access cards, and disappeared back out onto the wet, empty streets.
Not with a bang but a whimper.
And a face mask.
That. Was. It.
When I left via the employee’s entrance for the last time, I felt like an abandoned child.
Fifteen years, a chapter of my life, and it hung in the air like an unfinished sentence.
It suddenly occurred to me that this job had meant more to me than I realised. But walking out the door was a non-event. There was no acknowledgement. There was no closure. I was — like the rest of those leaving — simply lost in the shuffle. Just another body in the way, of no value. I was invisible. As if I had never been there in the first place. As if I no longer existed.
I walked to my bus feeling empty and isolated, and when I got home, I sat and cried.