Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era: Installment #18
April 27, 2022
Written by Christina Love (Undergraduate Student, Indigenous Studies and French)
In the eighteenth installment of our series Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era, we interviewed Khaled, a former electrician and current electrical store retail worker in Toronto. They talk about their experience switching to a different role in the same field due to the pandemic, and how their interactions with others have been impacted as the world changes. Khaled emphasizes having compassion for those who may be immunocompromised, as they have personal experience of a family member who is vulnerable. They note that the pandemic has led their community members to express extremist viewpoints and that they wish more people would exercise critical thought. Khaled wishes more decisive action was taken to combat the pandemic during the beginning stages.
For privacy, all names have been changed to protect the identities of our interviewees.
Christina: Can you describe your job, how long you’ve been working there, and in the field, and go over some typical tasks/duties?
Khaled: I started my current job roughly a year and a half ago. I used to work doing service calls as an electrical technician, but we had to go into buildings and I didn’t feel comfortable with the close contact we were having with the tenants. You’re going into people’s homes, so they didn’t want to be as strict with masking and distancing because it’s their space, you know? It was also earlier on in the pandemic so regular people didn’t really grasp the importance of these public health measures that were being put in place yet. Couple that with the other people I was working with having a really relaxed attitude towards masking and everything, I had to quit that job and now I’m working in the sales department selling electrical equipment.
Initially when I made the switch I worked in a warehouse, but I got promoted to sales fairly quickly from there. Now I serve customers at the counter, help them find what they’re looking for, and I’ll give advice on projects sometimes.
Christina: How has the pandemic impacted your work and working conditions? What’s changed?
Khaled: The pandemic is the biggest reason I had to quit my original job. I just did not feel comfortable at all with the proximity, let alone the number of people we would be servicing. In terms of my current job, it hasn’t been impacted too much; we’ve remained open throughout the pandemic because we’re a supply-chain industry. Business didn’t slow down, and I haven’t been placed on leave or anything. The only real difference has been the pandemic regulations like physical distancing, masking, and a bit more cleaning that we’ve had to start doing.
The beginning was a stressful time for me and my coworkers, especially because we didn’t have access to vaccination at that point. There was a lot of uncertainty, and no one really knew what was going to happen. You couldn’t count on much and expectations weren’t met a lot of times. Initially, my boss in the technician job didn’t believe in masks and vaccination and other lifesaving public health measures. Now I work in an environment that’s very strict about it all. Frankly, it was quite a jarring change. On the one hand there was the owner who didn’t ‘believe’ in public health measures, even though they’re scientific fact, and on the other was the owner’s nephew who runs the retail side of things who was so careful it was almost paranoia. I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone else who has gotten to the point of having scabs on their arms from all the sanitizer and alcohol wipes they’ve been using.
Personally, I’m more in favour of more health and safety measures, but I won’t be wiping down counters after each and every customer. I know from experience that it isn’t just yourself that you need to think about. My mom’s on dialysis and immunocompromised, so I need to be thinking about her and also try to be considerate of others who might be in similar situations. I know I wouldn’t care as much if it was just me. I’m a 25-year-old healthy male so it would for sure be less stressful if I knew I wasn’t potentially putting my mother’s life in danger.
My mom’s on dialysis and immunocompromised, so I need to be thinking about her and also try to be considerate of others who might be in similar situations.
Christina: How supportive have your workplace and the government been towards people in your field throughout the pandemic?
Khaled: Not very supportive. My workplace in particular does not appreciate people taking sick time and they don’t have paid sick leave or anything like that. Some people requested to be laid off because of COVID as well, so we were short staffed for a while there and taking sick time was very highly discouraged. I did get a raise during the pandemic, but that was based on my performance. We didn’t get any hazard pay due to the increased risk as essential workers.
Christina: Are you part of a union? If so, what has their role been? If not, would you want to be?
Khaled: No, I am not a union member, and I don’t think I’d want to be. I feel like unions work in theory, but in practice they don’t do a lot that I can see. Especially the electrical workers’ union, you don’t see them out there and fighting for people’s rights all that much. There are issues, they don’t get dealt with, and I don’t want to clean up those messes and deal with all the infighting and drama.
Christina: Do you feel like you’re treated fairly in the workplace? Pay, accommodations, resources, etc.
Khaled: They treat me fine. I’m an easy person to get along with and I don’t rock the boat. I’ve learned a lot, I get accommodated for time off for school, I’ve gotten a raise and promotion, things are good in my opinion.
Christina: Has working during the pandemic taken a toll on your mental and physical health and wellbeing?
Khaled: I deal with people all day in sales. That alone will take a toll on your mental health, so I will say that my mental health has been rocky. The uncertainty around who is or isn’t sick, like people coughing weird, not wearing masks properly, and standing too close to you definitely puts me on edge whenever it happens. You can get to be really apprehensive about confrontation too because customers might lash out at you if you say something, and this has happened to me before. So, then you’re debating in your head if it’s worth it to confront them or not, and it’s just a massive headache and really anxiety-inducing. You can’t really say anything back either because of the ‘customer service’ mentality that’s being pushed on you.
There’s not much you can do or say in these situations. While it might not bother you too much at the time, after a while these things accumulate to really weigh on you and you’re sick of it and lose faith in humanity. In my work we don’t have as broad of a cross-section of the population we’re dealing with, so we’ve sort of got a classification system for the types of interactions we have. The easiest one to deal with is the contractor who knows what they’re doing. They know exactly what they want, how to use the equipment, and they have a plan. Then you get the contractor who’s the hack, who doesn’t know what they’re doing but has an idea of what they want. They’re not really great at their job, but they don’t make your job too hard, you know? Under that’s the do-it-yourselfer who has whatever project in mind but doesn’t really know what they’re doing. Bottom tier is the homeowner who’s working on a fixing or building project and is messing with something they really shouldn’t be messing with.
While it might not bother you too much at the time, after a while these things accumulate to really weigh on you and you’re sick of it and lose faith in humanity.
Personally, I can gauge the type of person I’m dealing with maybe thirty seconds into a conversation. Depending on who they are and how they treat me, I can exert a little bit of worker autonomy in what I do and say. Now, I can’t really mess with the contractor who knows what they want if they’re being rude, so I generally try to just keep those interactions to a minimum. But if, say, the homeowner is acting rude and entitled, I can choose to a) play dumb if they try to ask me questions about how to do things and b) adjust the pricing and take off discounts. It’s like my own little asshole tax. People don’t realize that just being nice goes a long way. I will go out of my way to explain things and help people who are kind to me and treat me like a person.
Christina: Do you wish you had more power than that?
Khaled: I don’t think it’s realistic to have more power than that. They’re the customers at the end of the day and it’s them who are keeping the doors open. You can’t mess with them too much or get hostile or confrontational or anything, even if they’re being that way to you. A lot of times you’re forced to brush things off, so this little bit of justice I can give makes me slightly less angry at the world.
Christina: You’ve addressed this a little more generally, but how have clients been treating you? What do you notice is different from before the pandemic?
Khaled: During the first and second lockdowns, people were on edge like crazy. People are still on edge, but I’ve noticed they’re starting to calm down a little bit more. In the beginning, though, you couldn’t say anything to anyone without it being taken as offence – you could barely look at some people. People just got so selfish and self-entitled. One time, there was almost a fist fight in our store. So, this one guy came in wearing one of those useless face shield things and my coworker asked him, politely, to put on an actual mask. This man started ranting about how ‘blue masks’ this and ‘blue masks’ supposedly do bad things to you and that we all need to ‘do our research’ because obviously we’re sheeple or something. Like man, a YouTube video that’s been passed around some group chats isn’t research.
During the first and second lockdowns, people were on edge like crazy.
Anyway, this guy did end up going to get a proper mask, but he didn’t wear it correctly. Then he started going on a bunch of other conspiracy theory bullshit about hospitals being empty and COVID being a hoax. As he was leaving the store, this other guy said, “Put on a mask, you fucking loser,” and they just started goading each other and it was an inch away from getting physical until one of them left.
Another customer used to always criticize whenever my coworker would sanitize things, and that’s one of the tamer ones. There were others who would go on and on about the ‘shadow government’ and officials drinking blood and a lot of other insane conspiracy theories. You’re just listening to this day in, day out, and it gets disturbing and also demoralizing. I don’t understand how people can think some of these things. It’s like critical thought doesn’t exist for them, and it makes me concerned for the state of the world.
Christina: If you had unlimited power, what would you have changed about pandemic response in general, and specifically to your field?
Khaled: In the first wave I would have brought in the military and told everyone to stay home, and I would’ve implemented a monthly stipend for everyone and had really robust case tracking so we wouldn’t get the huge outbreaks. I would have imposed an emergency tax on the rich to fund this and get homeless folks off the streets. The government took half-measures for everything during the pandemic and I don’t support that approach.
Christina: Do you have any last thoughts or things you think that the general public should know?
Khaled: People suck. People’s true colours really came out during the pandemic and if you’ve worked in any sort of job that requires human interaction, you would’ve realized that people actually really suck. Too many people care only about themselves and will happily stomp over you just to get a deal.