Sheila, who is 32 and living in Tennessee, is an essential worker of the pandemic, working behind the meat counter of her local grocery store. The job is difficult and stressful, in part because it can be a struggle to get customers to respect social-distancing rules. “Sometimes people will lean right over the top of the case to speak to me,” she says, “even though we have a green line and signs requesting a six-foot distance.”
This can be an honest mistake, but Sheila says certain customers become particularly aggrieved when they’re asked to keep their distance. Recently, when she politely asked one male customer to step back, he coughed theatrically in her direction. “I just stood there like, ‘Yeah, that’s not remotely funny given the risk my co-workers and I are running,’” she tells me. “Just for people to make jokes at our expense, and maybe infect us while they’re at it.”
Such aggression toward service workers doesn’t seem to be limited to Sheila’s workplace. A compilation video recently made the rounds on Twitter showing customers coughing on, spitting at, hitting and berating service workers who asked them to respect social-distancing rules, and news reports reveal that workers have even been shot for requesting that customers wear masks and died of COVID-19 after being spat on by disgruntled customers.
Naturally, this is making service work, which is already stressful, low-paid and under-appreciated, even tougher and potentially dangerous, resulting in low morale. Stevie, a 24-year-old retail worker in New Zealand, recently had a customer spit in her face because she wasn’t happy about the 10-person limit in the store. The saddest part is that I wasn’t even surprised or startled by it, just defeated,” she explains. “A lot of my team are feeling the same way, expecting customers to treat us badly even though the social-distancing rules and policy changes are out of our hands.”
As to why customers are behaving this way, that’s anyone’s guess. The pandemic is a highly anxious time for almost everyone, but most people are managing to get through it without physically and verbally abusing service staff, and it’s likely that the people who are behaving this way are the same kind of people who have always treated service workers with contempt. “Based on two years of experience working at the brewery, it seems like people, especially men, feel entitled to ‘their’ beer,” says Carly, a 25-year-old bartender in Tennessee who has been “cussed out multiple times” by customers angered by her bar’s takeaway-only rule. “They get upset when a 5-foot-tall girl says no, especially when I tell them that we have no clue when it will be anything other that to-go beer.”
LeighAnn, a 26-year-old grocery worker in Tacoma who has been verbally abused for asking that customers don’t try to bag their own groceries (per store policy), thinks the poor treatment relates to the relative class position of service workers. She says she feels wealthier customers looking down their noses at her, an experience she describes as “dehumanizing.” “I want to say it’s because of stress and looking for control, but I think it has a bit to do with classism as well,” she explains. “My coworkers and I are the dirty cesspool where [these customers think] they’ll get infected.”
There’s a conflict here: At the same time as essential workers are being lauded as “heroes” in the media and during nightly clapping, they’re being treated with contempt on the ground — both by their bosses, and by some of the customers they serve. As my colleague Miles Klee pointed out recently, this exposes how hollow the “hero” label has become. “It’s nicer for us to imagine [essential workers] as beacons of courage, volunteering to brave the horrors of an infected world, than individuals trapped by precarity, unable to walk off the job, fearful of exposing family to disease,” he writes. “A hero is someone we’re likely to screw over.”
And that’s exactly how it feels for Sheila, who says she feels “scared, trapped and humiliated” by the abuse from customers, but who’s in no position to quit her job. “I have student loans for a degree I couldn’t finish; I have to pay rent, both my parents are dead and I have no family to help me,” she explains. “I moved to this job from Best Buy because it paid slightly more per hour — $14 instead of $13.”
Sheila can think of a few things that could make her life easier right now, including “having management that had [her] back” so that she felt empowered to stand up to unruly customers.
Stevie agrees: “It’d be great to have more support from our head office regarding things like our exchange policy,” she explains. “It’s frustrating to know that a customer will get angry with us in store for following policy, but if they call our head office, they’ll get what they want in the end. It feels undermining.”
Mostly, though, Sheila wishes she had the financial security to change jobs. “Something like [universal basic income] would give me and my co-workers the financial ability to do something else,” she muses, “so we’re not viewed as second-class citizens who have no options and have to take whatever’s thrown at us.”
Without a unionized workforce or employee protections, though, service workers have little power to negotiate with unsupportive management on this issue, meaning they’re left to tolerate belligerent, abusive customers in spite of the emotional cost. “People are acting like toddlers,” Carly says. “I feel like a parent, which I don’t want to be, especially to people my own age.”