Anxious, overwhelmed, abused: what it’s really like working in retail during the pandemic

I have been in retail for more than four years now, and 2021 was one of the worst in my entire working life.

Retail is already not an easy job, but when you add a highly contagious deadly pandemic and people’s lack of care, it really does take a toll.

We started off the year with a sense of “normalcy”; masks weren’t required indoors, the virus wasn’t in our state and it seemed all other states were doing well too.

Most retail companies got complacent and even lowered some of the restrictions for their stores. In June, cases were going up, and the New South Wales government’s lack of immediate action meant that most people went berserk, shopping before stores closed again.

Customers refused to social distance. Many would simply take their masks off to speak to us, and there was massive tension in the air among retail workers, specifically because everything else was closing except shopping centres.

You couldn’t go to the pub, you couldn’t go to the movies, but if businesses decided they were “essential” then you just had to go to work and endure the anxiety and dread.

Many of us just accepted the fact that eventually we were going to get Covid-19, because the safety precautions were just “strongly suggested” and not enforced.

If you had to work in one of the many stores that considered themselves essential, such as entertainment retailers, then you had no choice but to go to work and hope you didn’t catch it, or that your anxiety wasn’t so high you could barely function – all while seeing people browsing DVDs, games and just about everything else without being able to tell them to leave.

Browsing was prohibited but many businesses refused to enforce it. Then on 17 July, when I really felt like I couldn’t go any longer, then-NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the strictest lockdown we have had in the state.

Every retail worker I know breathed a massive sigh of relief, because at least it meant that we weren’t being forced to have strangers in our immediate proximity at all times.

We knew that as retailers who also operated online, we still had to go to work, but at least we had the same faces day in, day out, rather than the whole town. Working primarily this way did lift a massive amount of anxiety off ourselves, and things were fine for the most part.

For the first couple of weeks, anyway. People understood you had to buy online if they weren’t buying groceries or medicine and while we had the odd individual who still thought they could walk in, things weren’t that bad.

The problem started when the lockdown had no end in sight and customers became agitated. We had customers yelling at us over the phone and many tried to force their way into the store’s front door.

All of this took place while we had the NSW government warning the public of workplaces being the biggest infection hubs for the state, with cases going well over the 1,000 daily mark.

We went to work just convinced we were eventually going to catch it, just like before lockdown. When it was announced that retail could open up again, we had mixed feelings. We were happy because this meant we could visit friends and family, but also we knew that eventually we would probably have to deal with all the bottled up anger customers had from things they couldn’t say or do.

We spent a good amount of time just preparing ourselves for day one of reopening, and it really wasn’t enough. The few first weeks were intense. Stores hit the cap very quickly and we genuinely weren’t in the right headspace to deal with so many people at once.

Customers were out of patience and couldn’t understand that we were really trying our hardest and working as fast as we could. This has lasted until now. We are preparing for the busiest period of the year while being in our worst mental health state collectively.

Restrictions continue to ease, store customer caps keep increasing and our work just gets busier, harder and more draining the closer we get to Christmas.

“We are in this together,” was said everywhere during lockdown, but my experience of lockdown was so much worse than those who got to work from home.

Staying inside your house and working from the comfort and safety of your home wasn’t a privilege given to us.

I don’t want to invalidate the experience and hardships of those who worked from home, but we still hear how hard it is to work from home and how tired people are, and there’s really nothing we can say that would validate our hardship and our experience.

This pandemic made it clear how expendable retail and hospitality workers are, how little our work is appreciated and how much is expected of us.

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