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Home » COVID-19 and the World of Work » Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era » Quitting after a Thousand Blows: Retail Work While Navigating a Chronic Illness During the Pandemic

Quitting after a Thousand Blows: Retail Work While Navigating a Chronic Illness During the Pandemic

Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era: Installment #8

August 19, 2021
Written by Christina Love (Undergraduate Student Indigenous Studies and French)
Edited by Tinu Koithara Mathew (PhD Student, School of Human Resource Management)

In the eighth installment of the Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era dialogue series we interviewed Angela, a former cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart, to see just how the pandemic has impacted her experiences at work. In the dialogue below, Angela explains her feelings of not being safe and the lack of accountability that managers treated her with, especially regarding her chronic illnesses.

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


Christina: Can you describe your job, how long you've worked there, and if you’re still working there?

Angela: I was a cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart for six years. I no longer work there as of June 2021.

Christina: What were your job duties and how did your role change during the pandemic?

Angela: The role has changed significantly during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, I’d do the standard cashier stuff: cashing out customers, assisting with various questions, and very basic cleaning duties.

Going into and during the entire pandemic, we were given an obscene number of responsibilities that all fell on the cashiers. We had to sanitize cash surfaces after each customer, direct and monitor the flow of traffic, and ensure people were properly distanced all while still assisting customers with their questions and still cashing people out. We also had to answer the phone for the pharmacy, which we were not at all trained or compensated for.

Christina: How was your experience working throughout the pandemic? Do you think it improved, or did it get worse?

grocery aisle

Angela: So, first and foremost, absolutely without a doubt I can say that it got substantially worse – worse to the point where I left my position because the strain was so great on my mental and physical wellbeing. Especially considering how there was no adequate compensation or care for the extra time and energy I exerted into that position, I just got entirely burnt out.

A big thing for me personally was that in the beginning of the pandemic, there was a slew of cleaning products in unmarked spray bottles that we were given to use. On multiple occasions when I asked about the ingredients and quality of these cleaning products, I was not given an answer. I had no knowledge of the safety warnings, directed use of these products, and any of the impacts of inhalation/skin contact. We weren’t given any gloves but just the cheap brown paper towels and were told to use whatever they had on hand. I had no idea what I was breathing in, I had no idea what I was touching. That was a huge concern for me, which I brought up more than once, but it completely fell on deaf ears.

I had no idea what I was breathing in, I had no idea what I was touching.

My relation to higher ups was another very significant part of what changed during the pandemic. Though I do want to note that from my personal experience at my job, the support received from upper management and higher ups in the company was never up to what I would believe to be the bare minimum standard, it got significantly worse during the pandemic. Particularly, I found that the shift regarding the pandemic was one not only of continued disrespect, but of genuine safety issues that were never addressed.

On multiple occasions, individuals who were not wearing facemasks and not citing any health issues would have to be helped by us cashiers. Our feelings of safety were entirely disregarded, and we were forced to just grin and bear it. This changed a little bit further on and starting sometime in February customers had to wear, at minimum, a face shield to shop, but that’s barely different than having nothing on if you’re not wearing a mask with it. And they were resistant even to that; the number of times security had to be called on unmasked customers was insane – and we’d still have to help them!

Christina: Are you or any of your coworkers immunocompromised?

Angela: I had one or two coworkers who were immunocompromised, and one had to take a leave of absence due to this. I personally am not technically qualified as “immunocompromised,” though I have multiple chronic illnesses, some of which I disclosed to higher ups. Even after knowing this, however, they didn’t accommodate me for the most part, and I’ve had my health jeopardized during the pandemic because of their policies.

Christina: As for accommodating for specific health needs, what was your experience with your employer?

Angela: My experience was a little different than maybe some of my coworkers because I worked only a couple days a week which meant a little less exposure. Personally, besides being reasonably flexible with scheduling, they did not accommodate me or my health needs at all. A big thing was that sometimes I’d have to call in sick for some shifts due to health issues, and while they didn’t fire me for being sick, I wasn’t given any sick pay at all, and I had to find someone to cover my shift. So that’s a major financial hit I took whenever I wasn’t feeling well enough to work. They also had no benefit program for part-timers, so if I wanted anything that couldn’t be accessed inside the provincial healthcare system, I’d have to pay out of pocket. Oh, and chairs. They had no chairs or stools for cashiers behind the register, so you’re basically standing at all times except for on breaks, which is inhumane in my opinion. It would be one thing if they were something only available if you asked – but they were not allowed outright and under any conditions.

During the pandemic, this was all really exacerbated. Not having sick pay and a comprehensive benefits program for all employees should generally be illegal, but during a pandemic, it should be grounds to shut down a business. And, like I said before, there was no screening process for customers coming in. We had no door monitors or store security so we would have people coming in with coughs, without masks, and a few who disclosed that their family members had COVID-19 but they felt “fine.” We had no protection from this, and I was genuinely afraid of dying due to this job.

Christina: If you could change anything about Shoppers’ response to the pandemic, what would you change?

Angela: The big things would be improving employee rights as well as improving the safety response on all fronts. The only consistent Shoppers’ response was about how little they cared about the employees. I would have added door security to properly screen customers and make sure they’re all wearing masks, in conjunction with offering curbside pickup so that we could refuse entry to any and all people without masks. There should have also been additional staff hired to respond to all the new tasks that had to be done, like making sure all the customers are properly distanced, monitoring the number of people in the store, answering overflow pharmacy calls, etc.

Another big thing would be a pay raise. I cannot adequately put a dollar amount on all the difficulties that we had to go through, but $16/hour for three months and then back to $14 was not sufficient. It was a slap in the face for most of us and I’d even say that $20/hour would be lowballing it. Even though the corporation was responsible for retracting the $2 increase, it should have been the responsibility of our store to properly compensate us.

Even though the corporation was responsible for retracting the $2 increase, it should have been the responsibility of our store to properly compensate us.

wage increase

Also, transparency is huge. Like I said with the cleaning products, we have a right to know what potentially hazardous chemicals we’re using, but beyond that, we have a right to know about COVID-19 disclosures. If any customer came in and later tested positive, we weren’t notified. If a customer came in and disclosed to a staff member that they were sick, the rest of us weren’t notified. If one of us got sick, the only people they told were those who were working with them last. All of this really boils down to a severe shift in priorities in favour of the employees who, over the past year and a half, have put their lives at risk daily to help others.

Christina: How has this pandemic and working during the pandemic impacted your mental and physical health? Do you have any new issues or are you having to seek additional care now?

Angela: Absolutely. As I said before, I worked for Shoppers Drug Mart for six years, and I'm in no way trying to say that the years before the pandemic were health complication free by any means, but it wasn't until I was working during the pandemic that it got so bad that I was forced to leave my job. I wholeheartedly blame that on the pandemic and, more specifically, the way in which my store responded to the pandemic. I truly believe that if I were given more support and more respect in that place, I would still be working there to this day. The poor working conditions combined with the genuine abuse that we all have received from management caused my mental health to decline rapidly.

I am currently much more physically and mentally ill than I have ever been in my entire life. I am now not only out of work but personally, without going into the details, receiving a lot more attention from various health professionals. I believe this to be a direct result of working at Shoppers Drug Mart during the pandemic.

Christina: If you could have the public know anything about your job, and how you were treated, what would you want them to know?

Angela: I think I would want the public to know that while technically our workplace was deemed an essential service, I felt very much nonessential and disposable during this pandemic and at the end of the day, each one of us was put through a lot of emotional traumas. We still showed up every day anyway to help people and to get the job done and I think I just wish that people knew more about how poorly we were treated, and I wish that our experience was better documented. Even the wage increases and retraction weren’t properly publicized, and some people have been under the impression that we’ve been getting it the whole pandemic.

Christina: If you could tell your former employers anything, what would you say?

Angela: Since I worked there so long, I saw many of my coworkers leave the company, for various reasons, but a common theme was in relation to how they were treated by management and by the store owner. I really hope that my leaving after all these years sheds some light on these issues. I worked there for so long and I put up with so much, but the way we’ve been treated during the pandemic broke me without a doubt. I don't think any single one of them is exempt from accountability there, and I don't think any single one of them made me feel safe, protected, and respected in the workplace. I think if I could say anything, it would be that each one of them, supervisor to store owner and everyone in between, needs to take a hard look at themselves and see what they’ve prioritized during this pandemic and understand that it was not the employee, not even once. The need to understand that they are in the wrong and are the reason behind so much of my and my coworkers’ suffering.

I don't think any single one of them is exempt from accountability.

Christina: That sounds like it wasn't a straw that broke the camel's back so much as a bag of bricks. Is there anything else you want to share or discuss?

Angela: Pandemic aside, personal space and feelings of comfort are very important. This is even more important during a public health crisis when you must maintain a six-foot distance for safety reasons. I’ve felt incredibly violated by customers who would come right up to me with no mind for my space, and by one manager who would non-consensually touch me and my coworkers. This manager was known for disregarding boundaries both verbally and physically, and during the pandemic, he constantly disregarded personal space when he’d talk to you, and he started to give “elbow bumps” to people. Let alone people’s personal boundaries regarding touch and proximity, we were in a pandemic and touching elbows is a violation of the six-foot recommended distancing that we should be following.

There was, of course, a power imbalance due to his position, and this manager got away with a lot – even to the point of being promoted after previously having been demoted due to issues I raised about him acting inappropriately towards me. For myself, this was truly psychologically harmful, and nothing was ever done to properly address this situation. I can speak for my other coworkers too because many of us took issue with this individual.

Another thing is that I was being stalked at work by a person before and during the pandemic, and management did nothing about it because he was a paying customer. This man would follow me around during my shifts, harass me and my coworkers for my contact information, and repeatedly try to give his contact information to me. When I told management about this, they wouldn’t even let me leave my cash register when he came into the store, let alone ban him, which is really what they should have done. I was terrified.

I felt powerless and that was unequivocally one of the lowest moments I’ve experienced in that place, just entirely being made to feel like I don't matter. All in all, I’ve never been made to feel like less of a person, or less significant in the world, than I have been made to feel while working at Shoppers Drug Mart, especially during the pandemic.

I’ve never been made to feel like less of a person, or less significant in the world, than I have been made to feel while working at Shoppers Drug Mart, especially during the pandemic.