Work as a Death by a Thousand Cuts

More painful than this even.

Ernie is new at his local retail store and wants to make sure he does his job right. But before he can even start his job he has to go through hours of computerized training. The training consists of dull, repetitive and ultimately arbitrary courses that eventually make Ernie mute the computer. Mostly so he doesn’t have to hear the cringy training videos.

Throughout these videos and learning exercises, managers will pop in and ask how he is doing. Although a completely normal interaction on the surface, Ernie can’t help but feel like everything he does is being monitored. As if he can’t be trusted to get the job done…before the job has even started. The check-ins feel stress-inducing to Ernie but expressing that would mean being insubordinate and after all, it’s not his workplace. So what can he do?

Sometimes Ernie will fail a test and fail it a few more times because, after a while, he can’t focus on the monotony of questions. Eventually a manager will help him cheat on the test which will make Ernie think that a lot of this training is pointless if you can just cheat your way through it. “It must just be for corporate” Ernie muses to himself in his head.

Ernie is careful not to say that aloud.

Although Ernie has a locker for his stuff almost no one around him even knows how to use the combination. Instead, Ernie decides to keep his stuff under the coat rack and just hope no one ever steals it. No one ever does but it’s just another worry Ernie is already having to contend with.

Once Ernie is finally done with the training, he gets up to the register.

Here he has to greet customers as they walk into the store (even if he’s busy with another customer at the front). He has to say, “Welcome to X” even though he’s not listed as a door greeter in his official role. Ernie feels like someone else should greet people at the door. After all, he works on the register, “faces” products and takes on any tasks leftover.

But Ernie cannot argue.

Ernie can also not argue with anything else asked of him. He has to make sure customers get their receipt (without asking them first), know there’s a survey on the bottom of it (and circle it with a highlighter) and often bagging things for customers, even if they didn’t ask for it. All of this feels strangely impersonal to Ernie and as if it matters more to please corporate and their procedures than making customers happy.

A nice bonus is that Ernie gets a 15% discount on store items, but that’s usually not much of a bonus. On the store brand material it becomes a little higher, but still nothing worth celebrating about. Other than this, Ernie doesn’t get many other benefits. Due to Ernie’s disabilities he can only manage to hold down a part-time job for around 20 hours a week.

But because Ernie’s disabilities are rather mild except in high-velocity situations (like retail, for example) and they’re otherwise somewhat hidden, Ernie couldn’t get assistance from any government or social programs near him. This leaves him to feel even more pressured at work so he ensures he doesn’t lose a steady paycheck, even if he doesn’t like his job.

Even when Ernie does everything right (doesn’t ask the customer if they want their receipt, mentions the survey, greets customers at the door), Ernie is routinely chided for not “facing” well enough. None of the good work that Ernie does is ever highlighted and when it is, it’s only when it’s something obvious, like covering someone else’s shift.

Sometimes managers will track Ernie’s progress as he continues to work in the store. This gives Ernie a lot of anxiety because he knows he’s being watched. Frequently he will forget he’s not supposed to ask the customers for receipts because he’s under pressure. Ernie will then be chided for these mistakes, which only makes him feel more pressured.

These little additions to the register process are only compounded by other ones where you have to make sure to scan a coupon for customers if they spend enough money. Or the fact that you have to be in certain aisles “facing” but then you also need to be at the front so you don’t make customers wait. “Why didn’t you face, Ernie?” asks a manager.

Ernie keeps getting mixed signals about whether he should be in aisles facing or whether he should just stay in the front.

Eventually when the store dies down, Ernie is desperate to read a magazine or even a book he can bring from home, just so he can escape his head for a little bit. The lights in the store are very bright and sometimes Ernie needs to wear odd looking sunglasses just to feel better. Both of these decisions are overridden by managers who complain he isn’t paying enough attention to the store or to managers. Ernie feels exasperated but says nothing, not wanting to lose his job.

Sometimes customers are rude or unfair to Ernie. He can’t do much about this because (as it turns out) the customer is always right…unless they’re yelling, swearing or threatening physical violence. In those cases (and sometimes not even those) is Ernie advised to call for a manager. But managers now make Ernie nervous and so do rude customers who treat him with disrespect repeatedly. What if they get angry? Or worse, what if the managers call the police?

The statistics about disabled people and the police are not exactly positive and so Ernie never feels fully safe around police officers. But he never gets a say about whether police are called or not, even if they make him feel overwhelmed.

There are different parts of the store and although technically Ernie is only responsible for the front, he often finds himself doubling for others. Helping customers try to find items (even when he’s busy with a customer at the register) and filling in for nearby parts of the store when there is no one around to cover them, which is often.

Many of these things in isolation would likely not bother Ernie. Even all together, Ernie can often handle many of these things in a given day, provided he has some breathing room. But the added pressure and presence of his bosses and their constant nagging for him to make sure he does X, Y and Z at the register make him nervous and stressed.

But as always, Ernie cannot tell them otherwise.

Because corporate procedure matters more than workers do.

Impressing the higher ups in corporate is all that matters.

Many of Ernie’s friends leave his workplace eventually, explicitly citing frustration with the management and the way they act towards the workers. Ernie mentions these concerns to a manager, feeling it’s important to be open and honest, but is quickly rebuffed and from then on, seemingly blackballed from extra shifts and treated coldly by the managers.

Eventually Ernie quits as well.

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