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Home » COVID-19 and the World of Work » Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era » "You Begin To Feel Less than Human": Student-Workers Discuss Work and "Blurring the Lines" During COVID-19

"You Begin To Feel Less than Human": Student-Workers Discuss Work and "Blurring the Lines" During COVID-19

Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era: Installment #1

June 18, 2021
By Christina Love (Undergraduate Student, Indigenous Studies and French), Tinu Koithara Mathew (PhD Candidate, Human Resources Management), and Suzanne Spiteri (PhD Candidate, Sociology)

In the first installment of the Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era dialogue series, we interviewed York University student-workers to understand their experiences during COVID. In the dialogue below, three Canadian student-workers share their working experiences during the pandemic. We find that student-workers have been immensely affected by COVID. Not only have their feelings of ‘safety’ at work been eroded, but they face additional challenges when working and studying from home. For student-workers with children, the pressures they faced have magnified due to their need to provide care for their children, to study, and to work.

For privacy, all names have been changed to protect the identities of our interviewees.


Q: What are some of the challenges that you have faced in your work because of COVID?

[A former cashier/post office clerk at Shoppers Drug Mart, Emma wants to inspire action and accountability by sharing their account of working during the pandemic.]

Emma: Notably, due to COVID and the subsequent uptick in parcels circulating/worker deficit, the managers transferred me to the post-office, so I was doing that as well as my regular cash work.

I, and all my other coworkers, were incredibly strained and overworked by the new practices implemented because of the pandemic. For example, as cashier and post office clerk, you had to make sure that store occupancy limits were not exceeded, sanitize everything constantly, answer overflow pharmacy calls (we were not trained/qualified to do this), have near-perfect knowledge of all of the post-office services and systems, and confront customers shirking mask and distancing guidelines - to name a only few.

Cashier wearing mask.

I have never been worse abused by other people than I have been working in retail, this being wholly exacerbated by the pandemic. You begin to feel less than human, between the unreasonable demands of managers and the customers who treat you like scum.

Some of the things that the store had implemented to ‘help’ employees with the pandemic was providing free masks in an unsanitized bag that everyone just picked into. So, we didn't technically have to provide our own PPE, but if we were at all concerned for our safety we brought our own. For around three months, the Loblaws Corporation had a $2 supplement to our wage. So that was $16 instead of $14 an hour, an increase that didn't even cover the taxes most of the time. After the initial three months, it stopped and there was no further relief, financial or otherwise, from the corporation because, obviously, we're not unionized and only have letter-of-the-law rights, if that. My hours also increased to barely under fulltime and I was just over the threshold to qualify for CERB, so I could only apply for CESB.

I eventually had to quit because people ended up being too afraid to unionize and I was afraid for my own health and safety. Everyone has a breaking point and working in that environment pushed me to mine.

Anyway, the combination of these factors and existing problems (I was prohibited from leaving at the scheduled end of my shifts and got my schedule WEEK-BY-WEEK!!) is what eventually encouraged me to unionize. That was the response I took, but I eventually had to quit because people ended up being too afraid to unionize and I was afraid for my own health and safety. Everyone has a breaking point and working in that environment pushed me to mine.

Q: How were you feeling before each shift? Were you worried, were you apprehensive?

Emma: Before each shift, and this was part of the emotional transformation I faced during my time as a retail worker, you become dehumanized and alienated from your own self worth - innate self worth as a person - because you're not allowed to defend yourself at all against customers. You can’t even walk away from someone who's screaming obscenities at you. You just have to take it. You could call a manager, but good luck if they're going to come anytime within the foreseeable future. The workplace is also entirely undemocratic and all of the concerns I vocalized fell on deaf ears.

So each shift walking to work, I just felt really apprehensive, tensing up, and readying myself almost as if for battle. You're steeling yourself for being treated like garbage. You have to become a robot almost, for your own self-preservation, and I had been commented on by customers that my mannerisms were robotic because of how much I distanced myself at work from my own personhood. This was such a horrible situation to be put in and I’m still, after three months (quit end of March 2021), acclimatizing to not being consistently abused. There is definitely permanent trauma that I now have to deal with as a result of my time in retail, and at Shoppers Drug Mart in specific.

This was just absolutely awful, I couldn't recognize myself sometimes because I was just this service machine, rather than a person delivering a service to another person.

Q: Was there anything that Emma said that resonates with any of you? Were you feeling the same sets of anxiety?

[Tom is a graduate student who works as a Teaching Assistant and is unionized with CUPE 3903. He wants to share his experiences during the pandemic to spread awareness to those in similar situations to his.]

Tom: That's a retail perspective, and I completely understand and agree with that, but as for my experience, I have worked as a TA leading up to, and throughout the entirety of, the pandemic. As a TA, I personally realized that there's no interaction at all among faculty and students as compared to pre-pandemic times.

This means that it is sometimes extremely difficult to keep up with everything; in the sense that you don't even know whether the students are listening to you and whether or not they are understanding everything. It's all just black boxes on a screen and you don't even get to see their faces, there is just no interaction so sometimes you feel really unmotivated.

Two people wearing masks video calling on laptop

Work from home provided a certain flexibility... There are some pros and cons but, altogether, being in the field of education as a Teaching Assistant is not really satisfying when working from home.

If I compare pre-pandemic times with COVID-19 times, I would certainly go back to the pre-pandemic times and have more in-person interactions since that’s more satisfying for me. So that created some stress in me because I don't know whether I'm doing the right thing or not, whether students are following or not. So that was one experience I had. But at the same time, it provided opportunities for some of my friends who are TAs as they were able to pick odd hours if they wanted to, for example, an 8:30 am tutorial session, because they didn't have to commute to work. Work from home provided a certain flexibility in that way. There are some pros and cons but, altogether, being in the field of education as a Teaching Assistant is not really satisfying when working from home.

You also always have this feeling that you have more time, but I don't know how I use my time because I'm all over the place now, with family around, kids around, work, and a couple of laptops in front of me always. I also realized I'm working too much because I spend a lot of time in front of the laptop. But if I was physically at work, at least I could walk around and meet people, interact with them. Overall, if I were to give a preference, I would go back to the pre-pandemic times.

[Cedar is a 6th year Ph.D student. She is a single mother with three kids and has worked as a TA throughout the pandemic.]

A woman video calling a man on laptop

Cedar: I agree with Tom. I was also working as a TA the whole time and finishing up my dissertation, both of which were really important to me before the pandemic. When the pandemic started, my priorities shifted completely and I had some choices to make. I had to keep my two youngest children home from school because they have some difficulties that were not being addressed at the school and it was getting really hard for them to manage. So, I kept them home.

All of a sudden, my work was not important at all because now I had to take care of these two little kids, and my older son, all who needed a lot of help. I didn't stop working, but I reeled it in a lot. My tutorials were crap, my dissertation was at a standstill. But then it hit me: I'm single and I need to work and I need to graduate on time. I needed to not get fired from my TAship, I needed to get back on track with my work and my research. But now I also had to balance homeschooling my kids, keeping the house clean, cooking, keeping them entertained, etc. It was too much and, as a result, what I found myself doing was just popping in and out of roles.

Sometimes I’m an academic and I know stuff and sometimes I’m making turkeys out of handprints. I feel like I have some freedom as a TA, and as somebody able to keep their kids home from school, but I also feel like I have freely chosen to be a hostage in my own home. I'm not happy about it but, at the same time, I'm so relieved that I don't have to expose myself to the possibility of COVID everyday to go to work, and that my kids aren’t at an increased risk.

I feel like I have some freedom as a TA, and as somebody able to keep their kids home from school, but I also feel like I have freely chosen to be a hostage in my own home.

On the one hand, “I'm so happy we don't have to leave,” but on the other, “God I wish my kids could leave!” But I don't want them to leave because I'm scared. But also... I want to leave. But I don't want to get COVID. So we'll all just stay here and be miserable and happy together.

In terms of work, the place that work took up in my mind was suddenly zero. It was so important before, when I had everything figured out and regimented. The kids went to school at a time, I worked at a time, I dissertated at a time. With the onset of the pandemic, suddenly my kids were home and I was faced with the possibility of them getting sick. My children are my priority so I didn't care about all the other stuff; I didn't care about my dissertation. It was a sharp shift of focus and of priority as well.

Q: The next question I wanted to ask was, if you could tell people, members of the public and/or your boss - people with power - one thing about your situation as workers, student-workers, or, in Cedar's case, student-worker-parents, what would it be and why?

Cedar: I would tell them that they fucked up. That from the jump, they were given an opportunity to not ruin or make people's lives so much harder and they went in the opposite direction. From the university, the response was overwhelmingly, “I hear what you're saying, but we're not going to do that.” In a petition to extend my studies, I also could not use the pandemic as a/the reason for the extension. I can't even imagine a situation where they could have made worse choices. I think the government did a really horrible job too and I think that they completely disregarded that we are a society made up of workers, wage workers for the most part, in their policy decisions.

Tom: I would tell them to trust employees, or workers; that's the most important thing. In my experience as a TA, my professor was very supportive and she made our lives extremely easy; but the experience was different for some of my friends who worked for other employers. They felt that there was too much monitoring happening, every 10 minutes, 15 minutes, somebody [supervisor] would come and ping and see whether there is a response coming, to make sure that they are at work and that they are working.

At the end of the day it's about the work; you take your time but you get the work done depending on the deadlines and other criteria. How this is done is not as important as long as it is getting done.

My suggestion to people who have power would be to trust employees, leave self-regulation up to them, and provide feedback accordingly – that's fair. Too much monitoring and controlling, like what we have seen, is not going to help anyone and it only creates more stress. I believe that more flexibility and autonomy should be given to the employees at the end of the day.

Emma: So, there's two ways I could go about talking to the head honchos. The first, and most cathartic, though least productive, would be to curse at them and everything they’ve done. The second would be implementing policy changes that would materially and justly benefit everyone, rather than the current status quo of the vast majority being oppressed for the benefit of the minority.

The people running the operation, like in all capitalist business ventures, viewed us as modicums for generating profit, that we were then alienated from, rather than as people who have innate value and worth, who have rights to what they're producing and rights to be treated well.

If I was able to somehow change things, I would automate everything. My job should not exist as a cashier, with the exception of post-office (for now). Though not especially difficult, the labour is entirely menial and can easily be outsourced to machines. No one wants to ring up cartfuls of items for rude people; we do it because we have to for money. The only issue with automation is the privatization of profits. If profits were collectivised among workers (and taxed more to be used for social programming and education), which they should be anyway, then my job should not exist in the capacity that it does. No job should if it can be outsourced to machines.

If I could change or influence society and the people who control it (fat chance), I would introduce universal worker ownership of the means and modes of production as well as ownership of the entirety of the products of their labour. Or I would just scream incoherently because I had to risk my life for minimum wage and I will never get that time back.

We deserve as much as any human being does. We deserve dignity, respect, autonomy, and peace.

Q: Our final question is, are you part of a union or an organization? Do you think unions and workers organizations matter at this stage?

Emma: I tried to organize a labour union at my location with Workers United. The only reason I went with an establishment union like UFCW or Workers United, is because you barely need over 50% of votes for it to pass and apply to everyone. I do believe that establishment unions that are institutionalized work by the laws and that their duty doesn't really end where the need ends, it ends at the limit of law - similarly to charities and money - which I think is unjust.

However, I ended up going with an establishment union because of the numbers needed and the mechanisms and resources already in place to establish a baseline of worker rights and benefits. Otherwise, I would have made my own union of my co-workers, more of an anarchist horizontal union, because that is the most democratic and directly effective, and it would be representing all of us in a just and equitable manner; but that requires huge support and collective buy-in, which I did not have.

I tried to unionize because the power of collective bargaining is so important in securing rights. If you are able to organize your co-workers, and you are specifically and intentionally isolated from your co-workers in a job like this, then you have collective bargaining power.

We should be able to be treated like human beings and have the fullness of our labor be our own. It shouldn't be stolen by someone else in the form of profit.

This translates to the ability to organize and do work to rule, refusing services, and the ability to strike and shut down the business. This power can be leveraged into greater control of your and your co-workers’ situations, as it has been historically. Unions win rights and some of the best jobs are unionized. While I don't believe that unionization is the only answer, it is a step towards what we should be doing, which is worker/collectively owned businesses and products of labour. We should be able to be treated like human beings and have the fullness of our labor be our own. It shouldn't be stolen by someone else in the form of profit.

Cedar: Well, obviously, as a TA at York I'm unionized and I think that CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) 3903 is a pretty strong, progressive union. In our current situation, I’m not sure what they could have done, really? Maybe Tom has found this different?

I don't even know what they could have done, to be honest; we have a relatively flexible work schedule, we have relatively fair limits on how much time we can and should be working. Given that we weren't customer-facing and that it was not necessary for us to put ourselves in harm's way to accomplish our work, I just don't know what unionization could have potentially helped us with. I think that I am also ignorant to how hard other people and places might have it, because of the strength of 3903, and what they've fought so hard for throughout the years. Especially with the overarching York University output that “everything shall continue as if nothing is wrong” messaging. It’s really a type of neo-liberal ethos crushing in on everything anyways.

Tom: I agree with Cedar. I think CUPE had done a good job; they were there to support us with everything that they could. We are also provided with medical insurance through the union which I think is incredibly important, especially during medical crises like pandemics. There’s also a sense of being sheltered and taking our benefits for granted, because we are accustomed to this union and the rights that they’ve fought for. When we compare our experiences with other sectors, like Cedar mentioned, sectors where there are no unions, people suffer a lot. Some unions are just being formed especially in the gig economy, but it's really tough for them, building from the ground-up.

I strongly believe in collective voice. I believe that unions can bring in change and that the power of the collective voice is incredibly strong.