This was written in November 2020. Names have been changed.
In all my years (28 to be exact) of living, 10 of these arduous years have been spent toiling doing “work”. Work is a general term, and can encompass various tasks, such as cashiering, cooking, cleaning, and very rarely, doing something of actual value. All have been minimum-wage, maximum-effort ordeals, in which I have lost bits and pieces of my humanity and sanity. Bit by bit, these jobs wore me down to the nihilistic, angry, probably even more mentally ill and insane person I am today. And by today, I mean as I am writing this now, in the middle of a pandemic, crying because I have to work two jobs in order to appease the capitalist Gods of Bezos and Musk, that I am worthy of eating ramen packs and browsing the internet.
Today is November 24th, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, and while I haven’t checked my province’s lackluster announcement today, it is probably over 1000 cases again. I had a mental breakdown last night, as I am also grappling with my ADHD, rent, two jobs, a relationship, probably anxiety, and the detestment of the whole system. The whole system being, well, capitalism.
It sucks. A lot.
Did I mention I’m working two jobs? Because the sane people around me (my parents, others my age) have shown concern that I even have to do this. Others (my employers) don’t even care.
My current bosses are privileged folks who own a business. That’s all fine and good, actually. I enjoy small businesses, I enjoy the sort of aura around them, that they are the ‘little guys’, the ones hold their own against big businesses and CEOs, a lone warrior in the face of profit. Well, that’s not how this one is run.
Back, waaaaaay back in February, the COVID-19 virus began. Back then, it was known as coronavirus, a generic name for something that I prayed would go away in short order like most hysterical virus reports. I watched, first-hand, as slowly our business crawled to a stop. Countries on the whole would shut down, planes carrying folks would carry the virus, and all around panic and paranoia began. My employers downplayed it, right up till the week of March 20. All day I would hear the same nonsense; that people just needed to wash their hands, be careful, etc etc. Once, they even asserted that hot tea (?) would magically burn away the virus. Again, these were intelligent people, who should know better but their business interests blinded them. They never experienced misfortune, and now that a virus was affecting them directly, all they could do was ignore it.
Ignore it they did. I was working right up till the last day, the day in which my area had made a grand decision to shut down everything. My bosses lamented this, expecting it to finish within a week or two.
In the weeks prior, they were doling out travel advice, saying to clients that there was no real threat, and that all anyone needed to do was apply hand sanitizer. I’m sure everyone reading this knows already that advice like this did absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. The only effective method to stop the virus was to immediately cease travelling, and to stay home for the allotted 2 weeks. In the weeks prior, I was staying late at work rerouting and reassuring clients, having a nervous breakdown, and generally waiting for the end.
As I stood in a cheap grocery store (for reference sake and my own anonymity, let’s say it was called Modest Eats), I almost wanted to throw up. The virus had started in full here in my country, and everyone was panicking. Due to the fact I was still working, still living in the city, still surviving and listening to the madness of my employers, I had to eat and do other things.
The shelves were bare. It was a poor choice on my part to wait until the last minute for most things, but I was not in the right headspace for anything that required planning. I was barely in the right headspace to go grocery shopping either, but there I was. We needed toilet paper, vegetables, and other goods I was getting due to a well-placed paranoia. Nothing was there. I nearly had a nervous laughing fit trying to get soup, as basically everything was ripped from the shelves. Toilet paper was a vision that many came to Modest Eats for, and I had hardly thought was a primary concern. Instead, the shelves were again bare, and I noticed that people were posting alerts on Social Media as to which stores had any (hint: none). I grabbed a single roll of paper towel, as that was literally the only thing available. Even the frozen goods were gone, picked clean as I found a lumpy bag of peas and carrots, which in hindsight were probably expired and forgotten behind the newer choices, and plopped it into my sad state of a cart.
I remember all this quite clearly, as I got home with my sad, sad haul.
My boyfriend looked at the paper towel inquisitively, as if I made a gross mistake on the way there.
“Just cut it in half, I guess.” I was too tired and stressed to realize the situation was, in fact, ridiculous. “Everything was gone.” I held my phone up with the evidence of the empty shelves, the bareness, the other bewildered millennial staring at the shelves, hoping that it was a mirage or something.
My stress levels had hit new hits, which was hilarious considering I was on medication for that.
The news came to the office, asking questions regarding travel. Was it safe to travel, could people feasibly travel? Of course, by this point, you all know what the answers were, Understandably, the news station only used a portion of the footage.
On the last day of work, my parents came to pick me and my boyfriend up. I was a mess. I cried on the way home, I cried to a lady on the suicide hotline. I just gave up, and all the mess of feelings that welled up inside poured out onto the cracked sidewalk beneath me. I sobbed openly outside. I couldn’t quite formulate the words to the sweet, understanding woman, but I expressed my difficulty with “the whole thing.”
When I got to my parent’s house, I was inconsolable. I couldn’t think if it was the right decision to come to my parent’s house. Clearly, my city was far more dangerous. But wasn’t I breaking the rules just the same? I gave up on rent, because I knew being laid off meant I couldn’t pay it. I bought a case of beer, and just went crazy. I tried, really really tried, to keep a mask over my withering mental health.
It all culminated that night, as I drank far too much beer, and sobbed once again on my old kitchen floor. The weight of the pandemic had finally taken its toll on me.
In the following months, my mental health got better. My rent was paid, due to the government making it a priority that folks who were out of work/less work could still live. I took daily walks to the forest and nature, planted seeds in my mother’s garden, and cooked all sorts of weird things. I foraged for mushrooms, I made dandelion wine. I did so many things that I never had time for. Including just speaking with my parents. In July, I sat outside in the sunshine, doing what me and my mom called ‘basking’. Vitamin D, or something. It was an excuse to relax outside and speak freely with each other. As we sat, my phone vibrated with an email.
“We are planning to open the office on July 6, Monday. Please be ready to come to work.”
My heart dropped in my chest. I should have been happier, as I was lamenting the lack of good internet, and general city life. However, I had felt nothing but dread. I crumbled to our porch, sad and upset but with no good reason.
I returned to work, suddenly with a fire lit in my spirit.
I wasn’t willing to get yelled at any more. I realized now, being away from my job, that I was merely ‘the help’; a vaguely human shaped object that would do the difficult and easy tasks that the rich are far too lazy to do. That was my job.
I knew that was my job on my first day, as little hints left behind by previous employees and the current ones. The woman I worked with for the first few months, Lina* (name obviously changed) was quiet and soft spoken. Once, I saw my boss admonish her for something, only for her to smile fakely and agree. I could tell it was a fake smile by the way her eyes creased up in irritation. Another incident was them speaking about a tourist attraction that was in her home country, spouting off incorrect facts regarding it. She spoke up, trying to correct them. After all, she grew up there and actually went to said tourist attractions. They told her she was wrong.
The last thing I remember her saying was when we were both alone. I was thumbing through the passwords sheet, looking at all the different agent’s names. I asked:
“What happened to the other agents?”
“They quit, found better jobs as travel agents. Good benefits, paid for vacations. You know.” She waved her hand. Neither her or I had been given anything like that. Even my Travel License I had to pay for, which was a lot for someone working minimum wage.
My bosses, on the other hand, went on a vacation nearly every 2 months. I quickly found out I wasn’t seen as another agent, a fellow colleague. I was an office-sitter. I heard of their fantastic (and expensive) trips, in far off areas. Once, I was even told that I needed to go to the Toronto Airport, ‘just to see’. That was a 100 dollar round trip bus ride that I couldn’t afford on my salary. I thought about it, in my desperate-to-please mind. This was a nice, comfy, office job. I couldn’t afford to lose it. Not after the hell I went through, climbing through restaurants and shitty fast food places. I just couldn’t. I had it in my mind that I would become a full fledged travel agent; that I would be gaining commissions and clients and all the glory and stability that came with it. The normality.
‘Normal’ was something that I have always wanted. I’m sure it’s a goal that quite a few millennials have tried to grasp. A house. An office job. Kids. A dog. The things they saw their parents have, and were told tales of. At 27, I felt no closer to that ideal.
Coming back to work, I was a blank slate, an absolutely upset person who was ripped away from happiness. And yes, I understand how crazy that sounds. Happiness? In a Pandemic?
I was so far removed from the chaos of work, the chaos of redirecting bookings and being yelled at over minor things that I had a taste of the Good Life. A life where minor mistakes were not immediate scolding, where I was free to say what I wanted to say without criticism. Often, my ideas for travel were brushed aside in a cruel manner, making me feel small and stupid. Even just general quality-of-life things I would bring up for the business were tossed aside in a similar way.
Also, there was a god damn pandemic. They opened up the province, only for the virus to still linger around. I entered work, thinking fully that all the sheets of plexiglass and masks and hand sanitizer and whatnot would be there. Instead, what I walked into was a half assed table, a little ways from the desk, and a pathetic bottle of hand sanitizer. That was it. I wore my mask, and waited for my boss to show up.
He was late, not wearing a mask. He sat down, huffing and sniffling, and grabbed his coffee.
“You don’t need to wear that here.”
I was beyond baffled. What? During a pandemic that shut the country down for a good chunk of 3 months, killed people, and I wasn’t supposed to wear the mask that was mandated by the government lest they get fined? This, I found out, was going to be a trend that would continue for the rest of my employment.
The other boss came in, saying quickly that I would only be working 4 days instead of 5. 6 hours instead of 8. A paycut was also not expected. I was told (and so was my other coworker) that everything would be the Same. Gina* (another Not Real Name) actually specifically asked about that, our hours. She was a no nonsense woman, and someone I was surprised by them hiring her. But she was nice and I always liked another person in the office that wasn’t my bosses to talk to. Also, she lived in my building. We had common ground.
I looked around for Gina.
“She isn’t coming in. Just you for now.”
Then I waited for my paycheck.
Now, I want to reiterate that I have ADHD. It’s a condition where I will forget things, act impulsively, and not pay attention to details. However, I was keeping up with the latest in government help, and knew that if I did go back to work, I would be h
elped by the CEWS in some way shape or form. My paycheck came, with far less than I expected. How was I supposed to pay rent? Or buy food? Our apartment is considered cheap for the price, but we couldn’t afford to downsize. There was nothing to downsize to. I panicked, and I applied for the CERB yet again, despite me being unable to apply for it. I made just a little bit over it. Not enough to pay rent and eat, but just enough to disqualify. There had to be some kind of mistake. Wasn’t the CEWS supposed to cover for cases like this?
I asked my boss.
I was yelled at, accused of not knowing anything. Asked personal life questions in an accusational tone that I was not prepared for nor wanted to answer. All I wanted to know was if I was getting my proper pay, as promised before the lockdown.
The answer was no.
If I was treated terribly before, I didn’t know what they were capable of now.
There have been frequent times where I had come home crying, just from their ignorant statements.
One day, they complained of the teachers begging the government not to open schools. The rate of transmission and infection would be too high, and yet my bosses made jokes regarding their want to stay home and collect money.
“They just want to be lazy, and be paid for it,” they said. I was working, and not being paid for it. If I were to stay where I was, I was going to be paid far more than this, I thought.
Another day, they complained that I have no reason to wear my mask outside.
“Why do you do that?”
“Because I have asthma.” And I went back to what I was doing.
“That’s worse for your asthma.” I stopped, absolutely baffled by this remark. One, I’ve had asthma my whole life. I know what’s good and what’s bad for it. Namely, the cold. I wear scarves over my face all winter to make sure I don’t get an asthma attack outside. Like a mask. I couldn’t believe I was being mansplained how my asthma worked, let alone by my boss who thought that people wearing masks were stupid.
Now, I’m here. On November 24th, 2020. I feel just as shitty as I did that fateful week leading up to the lockdowns. I came in to work at 10AM, and I am going to get home from my second job at 10PM. I had just been yelled at for taking offence at a terrible joke, a joke at the expense of people working second jobs, specifically the same company I am working for. I’m tired.
I’m tired of higher class, more privileged people take advantage of the lower class. I’m tired of coming into work and having to keep my mouth shut while my employers only think of profit instead of the pandemic.
I also realize now that so much of the things they did were due to their disdain for the lower class. I wondered why they hired a girl newly immigrated from Germany, or Gina, over some of the people I saw that week for interviews. Several sharply dressed folks who graduated from travel programs in college came in, did their interviews. Spoke concisely. Gina, bless her, came in as she always did. She wasn’t a woman who would lie to you. A straight shooter. She owned a cat and spoke with the slang of someone who had seen enough from minimum wage jobs. She was picked over all these other candidates.
Speaking of, I was also plucked from a (probably well suited) set of candidates. We are a college town, full of well-to-dos and other middle-class things. People here throw fits over heritage and the skyline. I was working at a pizza place, a rather nice pizza place mind you, but the stress of it was killing me. My back was hurting, my feet came home blistered. I looked on in admiration of other women who did serving. Why couldn’t I do that? Why was I burdened to the back of the house? I did what any tired idiot would do: apply to any and all jobs, regardless of qualifications.
In reality, I had no qualifications. I wrote a novel that no one bought. Sometimes I did graphic design, if I wasn’t lazy. I was the least likely to be picked for this job.
And yet, here I am, as a travel agent.
I realize now that this was by design. I am being paid minimum wage, with no commissions. No tips. No health plan. I took a major downgrade for a chance at a laid back office job. But, I was sold by the interview. I was sold the job. Tales of cheap vacations and freebies were presented to me, the idea of finally relaxing my weary head for once, the idea of going to a fantastic location, everything.
Of course they wouldn’t pick the college graduates. They knew what they were worth, what was worth it to them. I’m sure in college they were told the actual rate of a travel agent’s pay, and of commissions, and of how to actually use the ticket selling program. They weren’t ignorant like me, Gina or Lina. We didn’t know anything. Ignorance, it seemed, was what they were hiring for.
I remember the first time I was yelled at, I made a remark that I did something similar at a fast food place. I was told:
“This isn’t some flipping burgers place. This is a real job.”
Now, this phrase ‘flipping burgers’ is a difficult one. I would even say it is a dogwhistle. No one who has ever worked in fast food will say it was easy. No one. It’s a grueling, fast, messy, painful job. That’s why the turnover is so high. Nobody actually enjoys it. Anyone who I have ever heard of that has referred to ‘flipping burgers’ has never faced any hardship ever, in their life. They have never faced the panic of not being able to pay rent, being homeless, and wondering when their next meal will be. I have faced all of these problems.
Looking back, I realize that the class divide between us was far larger than I had anticipated.
Today was my last shift. In a fit of panic attacks, I haven’t been able to sleep in days. My hours were cut yet again, after a cutting remark was made regarding part-time work. Of course, part-time work was considered humorous for them, apparently. I reacted, upset at the connotations. And then my hours were cut.
Even still, after walking away, they dangle the idea of food and money in front of me, like I’m livestock. My paycheck, which was supposed to be today, is now scheduled to be mailed to me. They had a habit of doing that; highlighting a date like a Sunday to assure I couldn’t cash it on that Friday.
Their last words to me were that I wasn’t productive enough. I do have to concede that as true, as there was no travel work to be done. Yet, I asked for Clorox wipes to disinfect and sanitize things. I did. Nothing was ever done. They sat at their computers with earbuds in. We never wore masks.
If anything, this was a valuable lesson in not relying on employers for anything. Yes, they give you that precious paycheck. Yes, you provide them with labour. But you as a worker are worth as much as a human. You are not low enough to be yelled at. You are not low enough to risk your health for a paycheck. It’s not worth it. Not even during a pandemic.
If anything, the pandemic showed how people truly act when the chips are down.