How will this change us?
A surreal thought occurs to me as I write this article. There has never been a better time to be a retail store associate, warehouse worker or delivery person — at least from a public prestige perspective.
The coronavirus outbreak has accomplished something, perhaps fleetingly, that has never been done before. Many American consumers and some retail executives, if we’re being honest, are seeing the real value of frontline workers for the very first time.
We now appreciate the roles they play in getting us the foods and everyday staples we need by safely and quickly moving products from distant factories or warehouses to store shelves, the curb outside or our front porches. We are particularly appreciative of the fact that they are doing all this while trying to keep us safe from a disease that many worry could end our lives. That’s some serious stuff there.
In the current sense, not only are these workers helping to protect our health, they are likely putting their own in jeopardy at the same time, and not just from COVID-19. Stress levels, particularly for workers who have preexisting conditions such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension, have to be heightened. None of this is helped by the fact that many do not believe they can afford to stay at home even in those instances when employers have humanely offered to pay them to do so.
The reality is that, when you’re earning $12 an hour, perhaps a bit more or a bit less, and if you’re a part-timer like most are, you need to work. How do you then turn down the opportunity to work full-time while receiving a temporary bump in your hourly pay or a bonus for your efforts while at the same time being thanked by complete strangers for doing the same types of tasks you’ve always done?
Retailers have long promoted the idea, with some factual basis, that the business offers a good entry point for workers looking to find a career path. Industry folklore is filled with stories of teenagers who went to work stocking shelves in a local store as they began a journey to the top of the corporate ranks. The reality is that the workers you see in stores or making deliveries to your home, even before the outbreak, are for the most part adults like you and me.
Many stories have been written about how the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we live and work. Will we come out of this as new and improved versions of ourselves, and will the same be true of our commerce and politics? Here’s to thinking that we just may do that. A good place to start would be to remember that the very people whom retail executives have regularly called their most valuable assets are, in fact, just that. Respect on the job, proper training, pay raises and paid sick leave are good places to start. Stay safe.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think the appreciation retail associates are currently receiving for the role they play in society will carry on after the coronavirus emergency has passed? How, if in any way, do you think retailers will change how they deal with frontline workers when this is over?