Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era: Installment #16
March 11, 2022
Written by Christina Love (Undergraduate Student, Indigenous Studies and French)
In the sixteenth installment of our series Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era, we interviewed Ursula, a Tim Hortons barista/supervisor in a major Ontario city. Working throughout the pandemic, Ursula notes the particular struggles associated with the intersections of race, immigration, and gender. A Filipina international student, Ursula stresses the importance of always moving forward. She notes that compartmentalizing the abuse she faces at work is necessary because she has a family to support and cannot afford to break down. Ursula recounts harsh realities that no one should face.
If any Filipinx students find themselves in circumstances like Ursula’s, there are supports available:
All of the services offered by/through these organizations are free or free for low-income folks living in Canada/Ontario.
For privacy, all names have been changed to protect the identities of our interviewees.
Christina: Can you tell me a bit about your job? What are some of the things you do at work?
Ursula: I work at a Tim Hortons as a barista. I started out in 2019 and then got promoted to a supervisor position last fall. My main job as a barista is to prepare customers’ orders, whether they’re just drinks or also food. As a supervisor, my duties have expanded to include training new hires, responding to any concerns the staff or customers have during my shift, and I also do some of the paperwork.
Christina: How has the pandemic impacted your work and working conditions?
Ursula: To start off, the precautions we now take have meant that the place I work at has added a lot more labour to our jobs. For example, before the pandemic we’d have a station for customers to add creams and sugars to their coffees themselves, but now we have to do all that for them. This may seem like no big deal, but it adds up and decreases the speed we work at. We also now have to sanitize everything all the time. Every time we touch money we have to wash or sanitize our hands which has made my skin incredibly dry. This can be really painful and sore at times, and the employer doesn’t supply us with gloves or cream or anything to help with it.
More than that, it’s the fear. We are afraid everyday because we just never know the kind of day we’re about to have and what kind of customers are going to come in. The branch owner is also pushing this message of the pandemic being hard for her and that we need all the customers we can get. Even though we’re all uncomfortable with it, we still have to serve the people not wearing masks as a result of this policy.
We are afraid everyday because we just never know the kind of day we’re about to have and what kind of customers are going to come in.
We’ve had four or five lockdowns already and protests started happening every weekend around the second lockdown. These people will hold their protests outside of the location I work at, and usually they’ll gather in the store afterward which is really nerve-wracking because the store is small and they’re obviously not wearing masks and are acting unsafe. We try to serve them as fast as possible so that they leave, but that’s not always the case, and there’s always the fear that they’ll blow up at us if we ask them to wear a mask or distance or something.
It is my job as supervisor to protect my coworkers, and I’m just not able to do that. I know that there are different government policies around these sorts of things, but when you’re actually in a situation where someone is becoming violent due to you trying to enforce [the policies], there’s really not much you can do besides trying to avoid an attack. A lot of the bills and laws seem to be written by people pretty detached from the realities of working people. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to get by as best you can, which has gotten more and more difficult with the pandemic.
Christina: Did they hire any additional staff to offset the increased labour you were having to do?
Ursula: There’s actually a story behind this; before the pandemic we had a full staff. Since the lockdowns and reopenings have happened, we have retained four of the original 15. A lot of the original staff had to look for different jobs when they were laid off and the owner never bothered to hire anyone to replace them. I’ve actually watched a manager who had to stay over 14 hours to open and close the store because there was just no one else to do it. This was a woman who worked 50 hours, 60 hours per week for not much money, especially considering how much she does.
There is a bit of controversy there too because our boss lives in another country and has been stuck there for three years. Basically, the manager has had to run the store in her absence, even though that is not her job to do. Being in another country also means that our boss has no actual grasp on how things are going here on-the-ground. Like those lawmakers I was talking about before, she’s detached from everything, and more unforgiving because of it. We’ve been having problems with pay especially.
Being in another country also means that our boss has no actual grasp on how things are going here on-the-ground.
We’re just trying to get by and what complicates the issue is that we’re all Filipinas, most of us immigrants, and we’re sending money back home to people who are relying on our support. Our families don’t get food if we’re unemployed, so we make compromises to keep our jobs and keep conflict to a minimum. Even though we’re frustrated and infuriated with what’s happening, we’re just trying to keep going and move forward. There is a duality of being silent as well as silenced, which I think that a lot of Asian women can identify with. We’re just trying to survive.
I have watched my manager deteriorate before my eyes and now that she has been able to find another job, I’m up for her role and that scares me. The thing about it is that we’re part of a franchise with decentralized ownership of each store. Basically, it’s not the CEO of Tim Hortons that owns the individual stores, it’s a franchise owner, and our boss has been using this to say she can’t pay us more.
People have told me I rarely stand up for myself, but behind that is the fact I’m from a different country where women are not expected or supported in speaking up generally. There’s this dissonance that comes with adjusting here in Canada. I’m trying to learn what’s okay and what’s not, trying to learn my rights as an employee—they don’t tell you about any of this stuff when you migrate. It makes immigrants more vulnerable, and people can, and do, take advantage of us as a result.
Christina: How does all this make you feel? How are you dealing with everything?
Ursula: Yeah, so I’m an international student, I’m paying my fees, supporting myself and my family, and eventually I’m going to try to find a better job and get my PR (permanent residency). Throughout all the years I’ve been in Canada, I’ve had to learn to ignore and tolerate the abuse I’m getting in the name of surviving. I try not to think of it as much as possible, because if I let myself fall into that hole, I’d never be able to climb my way back out. I can’t let myself break because I would utterly shatter.
Throughout all the years I’ve been in Canada, I’ve had to learn to ignore and tolerate the abuse I’m getting in the name of surviving.
Christina: How have the customers been treating you throughout this time?
Ursula: There’s good and bad. During the pandemic, most of our customers have been employees at nearby stores, so we have this shared experience and solidarity which has been nice. So, I would say that the majority have been understanding and supportive because of this, but there is definitely a significant number who are demanding and abusive towards the staff. The pandemic has definitely made this worse. It’s not all the time, we’ve mostly been lucky with having security guards around for the more violent ones, but there have been many instances where people would scream at us and degrade and belittle us. There have been customers who’ve ranted to us about how masks and vaccines are oppressing them, and in situations like that it’s dangerous to disagree so we’d just have to play along.
Also, a lot of the people we end up hiring are Asian women, specifically Filipinas. We do try to keep diversity in mind, but in our experience, Asian women are more likely to make the best of the situation, comply with vaccination policies, show up for work, etc. Anyway, because of this there have been instances where men, especially ones who look East Asian, would sexually harass us. One of my former coworkers says that she thinks it’s because they think we can’t speak English as well and won’t advocate for ourselves. They almost treat us like we’re a fetish rather than people.
Christina: Has your employer offered any benefits or relief programs due to COVID? And do you have paid sick days?
Ursula: *laughs hysterically* I’m sorry, that’s just so out of the realm of what’s actually been happening that I couldn’t help but laugh. There is a saying that comes to mind: “Do not bite the hand that feeds you.” In this circumstance, it also means not to ask for any more than the hand is offering, or the hand will bite you.
Since my store is a franchise and all of the Tims use the same system, sometimes I’d be loaned out to different stores if they needed staff. At one point I was working for three different locations at the same time. Prior to doing this, I had no exposure to the practices and the nature of pay at other locations. So, it was only around a year and a half ago that I learned that I am entitled to overtime and vacation pay. I hadn’t been paid vacation pay for the first two years at my current store and I haven’t gotten any backpay for it. Concerning overtime, I had to fight to get it recognized and reimbursed. Around the holidays there were more hours and I was working above 40 and max 55 hours per week for many of the weeks. When I told my boss that I’m entitled to overtime pay, she just kept deflecting me, saying she’d check it, and never getting back. It took me over three months to get my overtime pay, and the owner only conceded after my manager threatened to call the Ministry of Labour on her. I should not have to do all this work just to get what I am legally supposed to be getting.
It took me over three months to get my overtime pay, and the owner only conceded after my manager threatened to call the Ministry of Labour on her.
I don’t get any incentives or regular raises. As a supervisor, I got a raise to $15 per hour, but that’s nothing now that minimum wage has been increased to $15. I also have no company sick pay, but when I got COVID, I was eligible for CRSB (Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit) so I got some money, but it wasn’t much and didn’t last long. There was also a reimbursement process the employer had to go through, so some of the money’s in limbo and I have no idea if I’m going to get paid it or not. In December when I caught COVID, it was doubly hard because I sent money to my family five times. I need this job for PR so I’m just putting up with it. If I go back to the Philippines my family will die of hunger.
Christina: I’ve heard that you have experience with protesters from the so-called Freedom Convoy. How has this impacted your work?
Ursula: So, I live near a transit stop that is close to where protests are taking place. I can say first off that they have been incredibly noisy and disrespectful to the neighbourhood. Around my work, people have been very nervous and scared for their safety due to the protesters being known to come into workplaces and abuse and assault the staff there. Personally, I’ve been scared for myself and others since my coworkers’ safety is my responsibility as supervisor.
When the protesters initially came, the security and police were everywhere, so that helped with crowd management as only a few at a time could come inside. Luckily, we haven’t had any really bad incidents so far, but I can’t say the same for other workers in the shops around my store. Even then, though they weren’t necessarily as physically present as they could have been, the fear and the anxiety has taken an immense toll on all the employees. The first couple of days a lot of people of colour in and around my store’s location ended up calling in sick because they feared for their lives.
One of my coworkers who encountered protesters on transit told me that even though no one was physically harmed, there were many different acts of intimidation she witnessed. I just hope this doesn’t escalate.
Christina: Do you feel like your rights are being respected at work?
Ursula: I don’t even know what my rights are to begin with. I only know I’m supposed to get 1.5 times my regular wage for overtime and on some holidays, but c’mon, I come from a different country, I don’t know everything and no one’s taught me. I was actually offered a salaried position recently, but I calculated it and they’d be paying me less if I was on a salary rather than by the hour. I don’t feel respected, and even though I don’t have full knowledge of my rights, those aren’t being respected either. I feel voiceless. You just need to survive, and I can’t stand up for myself when I have to just keep swimming or else I’ll drown.
I feel voiceless.
Christina: How has working during the pandemic impacted your mental and physical health and wellbeing?
Ursula: There are times I work 11-12 hours per day, and I didn’t know I was entitled to two breaks. I can’t demonstrate how exhausted I am in any way clearer than that. Every night when I go home I’m almost crawling; sometimes I can’t even take a bath because if I sit down I won’t be able to get back up. I’m still young and I’m fairly healthy, but this work ages you, I have pain everywhere.
I don’t even have time to deal with my emotions, and I can’t, or else I’ll not be able to get back up from that either. If I fall apart I’ll suffer more. Maybe I’d be able to confront all this if I could actually go home and see my family, but I can’t right now.
Christina: Is there anything you think the public should know? Or wish they would understand and consider when interacting with you?
Just see us.
Ursula: I wish they would understand what our lives are like and how our positions in society impact the way we experience the world. In customer service, we cannot fight back, we’re just trying to get by. We deserve better than the hand we’re often dealt. I think that awareness is crucial, people need to know what’s happening. Just see us.