The Coronavirus Customer-Service Crisis

When the public panics, service workers are the first to deal with it.

Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Early on Saturday, at the bakery a few blocks from my apartment, the barista didn’t quite have his new coffee-order spiel down. That morning, for fear of hastening the spread of the coronavirus, all the milks, sugars, and disposable lids had been moved behind the counter. He was nervous, he told me, because orders would take longer to dole out, and every request for “just a little sugar” or a particular type of milk had the potential to go wrong. He hoped people would be patient, but the rush had yet to come.

At the neighborhood grocery, people were starting to get irritated that this store, like virtually every other in the city, had run out of disinfectant wipes. The women running the checkout lines were gloved for the first time, spraying down conveyor belts and debit-card keypads as thoroughly as they could before the next customer piled toilet paper and canned food into their lanes. The one who scanned my seltzer and pasta ingredients said that the onslaught of disaster-prepping customers had first descended last Wednesday and hadn’t let up since.

The anxiety that accompanies hurricanes or floods—catastrophes that Americans are used to seeing on the news, if not in their own backyards—spikes intensely and dissipates quickly for most people. A novel respiratory infection such as COVID-19 is totally different. At first, a virus is an invisible disaster, working its way from person to person, weeks passing before the most severe symptoms emerge. By the time you understand how bad it is, it’s been bad for some time, which makes it difficult to prepare for. But as more of us have begun to understand that this new illness is far more sinister than the flu, the rhythm of everyday life has started to change in perceptible ways: honeymoons canceled, parties postponed, quarantine supplies sought. Often, the people executing these changes—and managing the underlying fear and panic—are overwhelmed and undertrained hourly workers or customer-service agents, who now form the de facto front line of pandemic response in the United States.

A week and a half ago, at one of Brooklyn’s larger Targets, workers had prepared for what was coming: The endcaps of aisles were filled with bottle after bottle of rubbing alcohol and hundreds of tubs of Clorox wipes. The store had already been emptied of hand sanitizer, but customers milled around as if more might materialize at any second, stopping red-shirted employees to pump them for information.

At the Break Room, a message board for Target employees, workers were starting to worry among themselves that the mood in their stores was about to get worse. Basic customer interactions had begun to go from polite to panicked. “Came across a guest with a broom trying to reach a canister of bleach wipes at the back of the top shelf,” wrote Redeye58. “She looked like she was about to climb the shelves when I stopped her.” (Target has not released details on how it plans to protect in-store workers; the company did not respond to a request for comment, but some posters at the Break Room have reported seeing more sanitizing products in employee areas.)

At some stores, customers have started to inflict their anxieties on workers with no power to fix their problems. “They ask us more questions that we don’t have answers to, like when are we getting more of a product or how long will the line take,” said an employee at one Manhattan Trader Joe’s, who requested anonymity in order to avoid scrutiny from his employer. His store had been out of dried pasta, for example, for a week and a half. He echoed a sentiment shared across the employee forums and subreddits of many large retailers: “I just work here; I’ve got no idea what our distributor is doing.” He said that managers have suggested employees leave their register to wash their hands every five to 10 customers. They’re doing a “decent job” trying to support employees overall, he said, but employees can only do so much on their own. “I think [the company] could possibly be telling customers to just be more judicious when handling product and asking for our help,” he noted.

Removing people from display shelves and explaining the finer points of retail to harried customers as they panic shop is stressful enough on its own. Doing so during a virus outbreak means risking exposure all day long. When stores are dealing with unending lines and impatient, nervous customers, workers can't always maintain a six-foot distance from people and clean their hands regularly. These basic safety measures would require clerks to leave registers and stop stockers from refilling rapidly depleted shelves. “We just fundamentally can’t wash our hands as often as needed, so it’s frustrating,” says another worker at a New York City-area Trader Joe’s store, who also asked that her name not be used to avoid the company’s scrutiny. “The sense of frustration and helplessness is growing. It’s making it really depressing to be at work.” She says that the company has asked employees not to wear gloves, because of customer complaints. Trader Joe’s has not responded to a request for comment on its in-store hygiene policies, but the company did announce last week that it would encourage sick workers to take time off by reimbursing them for missed shifts.

In some workplaces, that would count as a luxury. On a subreddit where Walmart store employees frequently discuss their jobs, a user posted a photo of George Patton, alongside a famous quote, altered to reflect how the company’s store managers might respond to workers who get sick and ask for days off: “May God have mercy upon my associates, because I won’t.” In the comments below the meme, other Walmart employees responded with more earnest anxiety. “I'm actually stressed about this. I have a family to support. So do a lot of my coworkers,” wrote Imaginary_Medium. “Several of my friends and family have health issues that affect their immune systems. Customers were climbing all over me and I wanted a hazmat suit.” (Walmart also didn’t respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson told Business Insider that the company would monitor the situation and adjust policies as necessary.)

For workers at gig-economy companies such as Uber and Instacart, the pressures are just as intense. Over the past week, Instacart has experienced demand spikes of up to 20 times its normal order volume in California and Washington, where community spread of the coronavirus has dominated news coverage. That sends the company’s shoppers back into crowded stores as quickly as possible after orders are completed, over and over again. Drivers who work with ride-share apps or Amazon’s Flex delivery service report being given little in the way of guidance or protection from above, beyond encouragement to sanitize their vehicles and their hands regularly. Workers at these companies are treated as independent contractors and don’t receive sick leave, health benefits, or job security.

As the crisis deepens, a whole gamut of customer-service workers are being pulled into the fray. Canceled vacations, business travel, and conferences such as South by Southwest and Seattle’s Comic Con have left thousands of people trying to recoup money spent on flights and hotel rooms. Those people have flooded airlines and booking services in person, on social media, and on the phone, with wait times for assistance stretching to multiple hours and cancellation policies changing by the day.

These roles can be thankless on a normal day—the Los Angeles Times once described customer-service agents as a “punching bag for airline passengers”—but when problems get complicated enough to push people away from companies’ websites or apps and onto the phone, things get really bad for those answering calls. “That customer is at a point where they’re pretty angry,” says Tiffany Apczynski, a vice president at Zendesk, which makes customer-service software. “They tried the other tools that don’t require them to pick up the phone, and this time they have to, so the problem has gotten really intense. It takes a toll on agents.” Research has consistently shown that the emotional labor often performed by people in customer-service jobs—the smiling through rudeness, the calming of nerves, the constant control of one’s own emotions—has what one widely cited study described as “uniformly negative effects on workers.” It has also been linked to an array of physical and mental-health problems, including depression and high blood pressure.

A certain amount of interpersonal chaos is probably unavoidable while people are still calibrating their individual responses to a new kind of threat. But as COVID-19 hurtles toward pandemic status, without the U.S. government implementing widespread testing or social-distancing measures, businesses have been free to respond how they see fit. So far, that has meant many public-facing employees have been expected to absorb an inordinate amount of risk with little recourse or relief. The United States does not guarantee workers paid time off of any kind, and many in entry-level or service jobs can’t afford to miss work, or will lose their jobs if they do. Whether these workers have access to paid leave—or time to recuperate from being screamed at for 8 hours a day—depends on the company they work for and, often, the benevolence of those tasked with supervising them.

Disasters, whether they’re mysterious illnesses, extreme weather, or the result of man’s cruelty, tend to illuminate the cracks in societies. Amid the panic shopping and refund seeking, the coronavirus has already started to illuminate a particular weakness of the U.S. in this crisis: Surviving a disaster in America is something people are expected to work out on a personal basis, with the employees in their local big-box store or the representative on the other end of the phone, whose time and energy is largely taken for granted until everyone needs it at once.