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Essential indeed: Can we finally admit that retail workers are important?

Samantha Christmann

Retail workers are underappreciated in the best of times. Now, they're unsung heroes.

Jobs once marked by drudgery are downright dangerous in the time of Covid-19. As always, workers go out and do what it takes to keep their stores open, stocked, serviced and clean. But now, they do it in the midst of a virus that has brought the world to its knees.

Workers are out there for hours on end, exposed to thousands of people per day, without masks, gloves and often hand sanitizer. I don't know about you, but the times I've had to go to a store, even for 20 minutes, I've come home, stripped off my clothes and scrubbed down in a hot shower. These folks are lucky if they get a break every few hours to wash their hands.

Yes, many grocery and retail workers recently received temporary raises and that's great, they're deeply grateful. But some raises were as low as 50 cents per hour. Would an extra $4 a day make you feel better about wading into the thick of a worldwide pandemic? About possibly bringing sickness home to your family?

Brittany Brown bakes bread overnight for a Buffalo-based grocer. Saturday, she worked a day shift to help restock shelves.

"I got swarmed by people. Saw customers reaching over other people," she said. "Having people crowd around me was the only time I've felt next-level anxious during this whole thing."

Store workers have always been an unfair target for shoppers' frustrations. Now, at a time when you'd hope shoppers would have new appreciation for the people serving them, the abuse has gotten worse.

"I witnessed a man get very angry at a cashier because she wouldn’t let him buy an extra dozen eggs above the posted limit," said Jerry Newman, a distinguished teaching professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo School of Management. "Taking verbal abuse is much more frequent now."

Newman should know. He used to be one of those dismissive, demanding customers blasting minimum-wage workers for what he assumed was their incompetence. Then he went undercover working at fast-food restaurants for his book "My Secret Life on the McJob."

He was one of those "What-is- so-hard-about-making-a-burger?" people – until he went behind the counter to make the burgers himself.

Newman learned to appreciate the hourly workers that make the world go 'round. Hopefully, in these unprecedented times, the rest of us will learn how to do that, too.

Nurses, doctors, police and, yes, supermarket workers have all been deemed essential in this time of crisis. That means we cannot get along without them.

Does that mean we can finally admit they're important?

They're our seniors, our veterans, our parents and friends; and for years they've been treated like second-class citizens.

Retail workers are derided by people who say such jobs should be nothing more than a stepping stone to something better. They don't mention that retail associate, fast-food worker and cashier are the top three most plentiful jobs in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it's one of the few occupations that is still in high demand these days.

Many of the people looking down their noses at those who make their careers in grocery stores and pharmacies are the same people who used to have their pick of well-paying jobs in the 1950s and 1960s, who could walk into a factory with their high school degree (often less) and get a job paying enough to raise a family. They easily found work at companies with plenty of room to move up the ranks, and that were stable and loyal enough to devote their lifetime to and retire from. Many store workers would be in the manufacturing jobs of their forebears, if those jobs hadn't been shipped overseas.

Some people act like retail workers don't deserve the same dignity or rights as everyone else, because they should've gotten off their butts and gone to college. Maybe they don't know that more than a quarter of all retail workers have college degrees – and the staggering debt to show for it.

People say store employees need to work harder to get ahead. They must not realize how many of them hold down two or more jobs (without complaining!) yet still make less money and have worse benefits than their parents and grandparents did for "entry-level" work. They must not realize that workers' insurance premiums are so high and their coverage so sparse that they are often bankrupted by an unpreventable sickness or injury in their family.

Instead of lecturing that retail workers should "do better," can we just acknowledge that they're doing what we need? That they're filling important roles in society and are deserving of the same respect as any other working American?

Many workers are seniors or have complicating medical conditions that make them extra vulnerable during the coronavirus outbreak. Can we cut them a little slack and, I don't know, appreciate their sacrifices?

Now that we know they're essential, can we admit that our country would come to a grinding halt without them? Can we admit that we need them? Can we admit that they matter?

Raises for grocery workers during Covid-19 aren't just nice – they're necessary, experts say

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