A few weeks ago, I tweeted a collage of people in St. Joseph not wearing their masks inside stores like Walmart and Target.
While the consensus was, “That seems about right,” a restaurant worker reminded me that despite how annoying it is to see people act that way, to not pass blame on the retail and restaurant workers who were forced to go back to work during a pandemic.
It got me thinking that with my final Shuffle of 2020, I wanted to offer a thanks to all of the retail and service industry workers instead of the usual “State of the St. Joseph Arts Scene” (We’ll get that in next week).
Not to sell health-care workers short, as they do incredible, life-saving work on a daily basis. But as we come to the end of an insane year, not enough thanks has been given to the tired, underpaid retail and restaurant employees who were forced back to work in spaces where they potentially come in contact with COVID-19 on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
As I was grocery shopping, I ran into several people not wearing masks (and making sure that people knew about it). They walked by several employees, who did nothing to address it. While I was mad at the people who didn’t care if they infected others, I couldn’t blame the workers for not stopping them.
They’re sick of having to babysit grown adults who act like children because they have to wear a piece of fabric. They were hired to stock shelves, help customers and run cash registers, not remind rebels that there’s a city-wide mandate they need to follow. The same goes for restaurant workers, with different duties.
In a year when movie theaters and entertainment venues closed, these people risked their health to allow the public to shop, eat food in public and purchase entertainment. The most they got in return were some places instituting temporary “Heroes Pay” and offering empty congratulations for either helping supermarkets score record profits or a pat on the back for keeping local restaurants afloat.
When these workers look back on this, I wonder what they will think of their time clocking in at their job. I think of how they will explain to their others why they needed to go back to a space for hours on end where there’s no guarantee of safety, especially with rising COVID-19 numbers. And I wonder if they’ll think of how easily government spending, planning and caution could have protected them.
When I think of the response to the pandemic for retail and service industry workers, I think of a funny tweet, which I’ll paraphrase as “Workers watched the messaging of their stores change from ‘Protect yourselves. We’re all in this together’ to ‘You might as well catch it at Burger King.’”
While this column can’t offer any kind of financial or material assistance, I want to at least let the workers mentioned know that they’re thought of and valued. Hopefully in 2021 that gratitude can shine through and we can do better.