Once we were all gathered in the back, seated on overturned milk crates, my boss removed a folded-up piece of paper from his pocket and began to read a letter from our company’s management that thanked us, presumptively, for our “confidence and steadiness” and offered our store a bonus. He quoted a customer who called our efforts “a lifeline.”
Before the close of the meeting, my boss led us in a round of applause for our own hard work and dauntlessness. Though I clapped, something didn’t sit right with me. Unlike medical personnel and emergency responders, we didn’t sign up for potentially life-threatening work. We can’t check the temperature of people entering our store or maintain a safe distance from one another. At the time that memo was read, we were discouraged from wearing masks, because their efficacy against the coronavirus was undetermined. I felt this advice had little to do with pointlessness and more to do with optics. Consumers wouldn’t feel comfortable coming into our store if it looked like the inside of an operating theater.
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Since that backroom huddle, I have read daily about the newest essential frontline workers—bus drivers, people who work with the homeless community, and, mainly, grocery-store employees. The nation’s leaders and cultural influencers have been tweeting their praises. Every major news outlet has featured a story that has established us as heroes. “We ought to thank [supermarket employees] for their service, not blame them because market lines are long or inventory is low,” a Los Angeles Times article said.
I fear that many of my co-workers are so high on recognition and glorification, they can’t see the real danger they’re in. It troubles me to hear about people like Jason Hargrove, the Detroit bus driver who died less than two weeks after a passenger coughed openly on his bus, or about how New York City’s hardest-hit neighborhoods are low-income and full of the working poor. I’m afraid that when a grocery-store worker does fall ill, the measures taken in response might lack transparency.
Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.
I have immense gratitude for my job. I love my co-workers like family. I respect the company that has employed me and given me excellent health-insurance benefits for more than 16 years. The anger I have is not toward my boss, or my boss’s boss, or even that guy’s boss. It’s toward an unfair system that will never change if we workers don’t question the motivations behind such mythmaking.