By Sophia Rottman
Many high school students have part-time jobs, and up until March, that was an entirely typical and mundane aspect of teenage life. From a surge in gratitude to plexiglass shields, Covid-19 has brought more change to grocery store jobs than ever before. Numerous Harbord students, including Paige Walsh and Gabe Hodgins, have experienced them firsthand.
Both students work at their local grocery stores. Gabe Hodgins is employed in the bakery department, and Paige Walsh is a cashier and supervisor in training. The pair were nervous at first about working during an ongoing pandemic, but have since adapted and gotten more used to it. Gabe expressed that “it was stressful especially at the start,” highlighting that grocery stores were not prepared, and it took some time for precautions to be put in place. Paige says that now “I know how to stay safe, and I know I’m doing everything I can.”
Covid-19 forced such an unprecedented impact on the workforce in our country and those all across the globe, driving many to shift their work life to their dining room table. However, for some, whether they were surgeons, personal support workers or produce department clerks, society depended on them to continue to do their job from their workplace. Thus, they received a newfound title and appreciation as essential workers. This presented itself as a significantly more unique situation for teenagers. Gabe explains that he was used to working different hours than his mother, as she would come home from work as he left. But now, “it was a little bit of a shock, the fact that I was going places rather than my mom.” Working teenagers were still leaving their homes for work, while most of their parents were mandated to work from their own home's safety and comfort. Paige said that “it was kind of funny” and revealed that “I made jokes about how much more important I was.” However, if you put aside the quip of it all, you realize that it is mostly true. Not to discredit or brush off her working parents' importance, but without Paige, Gabe and the countless others who continue to work essential jobs from their workplace during the pandemic, our country simply would not function.
“It was chaotic,” is how Gabe explicitly describes work during the initial period of time after the emergency orders were enacted. He says that in the bakery department, at first “we weren’t sure how many people were going to come or how much stuff they would buy" since cakes and cupcakes are not necessarily what panicked shoppers are stocking up on. Gabe explained that “with everything being so crazy, everything was so inconsistent.” Grocery stores had no precedent for adapting and dealing with the pandemic, with no warning on the situations and problems that would arise. In April, Paige says, “it was so empty,” after the hysteria died down, the worry set in for customers, and they were shopping less frequently.
The shift to virtual school at the beginning of April was a massive transition for everyone. However, for students with part-time jobs, it meant they had more flexibility. Paige found that virtual “school was easier" since the pace of schoolwork was slower, and it did not necessarily have to be completed during typical school hours. As a result, she began to pick up more work shifts than she would during a typical school week. She managed 20 hours per week until the beginning of this school year and has since cut back to 10-15. When asked about the temporary pandemic pay raise, Paige exclaims that “I loved pandemic pay!” She adds that she thinks that workers should still receive it, as it has now ended. She explains that there are more active cases in Ontario now than when the raise was being given out. And workers are still putting their health and safety at an equal, if not greater risk, so why shouldn’t they be earning it? It is not like massive corporations cannot afford it.
The pandemic has had a substantial influence on people's attitudes and behaviour. With limited interaction with the outside world, society began to release their amplified emotions on service workers. Paige, who is a cashier, spends her entire shift interacting with customers. She explains that in early April, “everyone was so kind and would say ‘thank you so much for doing this,’ but that was in the beginning, it changed.” Paige says now, “there're still nice customers, but more [customers that are] rude” She adds that she understands that customers are “scared of everything that’s going on," but “[that] they take it out on the cashiers." Gabe mentions that two of his “co-workers who are Asian experienced racial discrimination, especially right at the start.” Nevertheless, even a pandemic is not an excuse to be racist or rude to someone fulfilling their job and helping you. “I feel like people who would be nice are nice, but people who wouldn’t are more mean,” Paige says to conclude.
As they continue to balance schoolwork, part-time jobs and extracurriculars, working students now have an additional challenge added to their plate: a global pandemic. So, do not be the face of more difficulty in their lives by being disrespectful to them as they remain the ones working essential jobs during Covid-19 and ensuring that our country does not have to face food insecurity as yet another obstacle on top of all the ones that already exist.