Making bread during COVID-19: life on the frontlines doing minimum wage (and unpaid) work

Grocery store employees to nursing students — how overlooked occupations became revered nationwide

Sky Kapoor

Three or four times a week, I stand behind a glass counter at a grocery store, preparing baked goods or pastries.

Every shift is a little different, but I can always count on watching my regulars come and go. I serve them the usual, and we make idle chit chat. These days, the topic of isolation always comes up in conversation — everyone is tired of waiting out the pandemic.

When I first started this job at the ripe age of 15, I would not have been able to fathom the idea of my occupation becoming so respectable in just a few years. Suddenly, what started as an innocent bakery job in a local grocery store became borderline heroic.

With the onslaught of restrictions amid the pandemic, I am deemed an essential worker, commended for my services on the same level as health care workers and those working in emergency transportation.

I hadn’t expected to be working the same job for so long, but as other small and large businesses shut down, I had no other choice. The scarcity of the job market meant that my position was valuable — to both myself and others.

There’s a strange fortune in being an essential worker. While I’m incredibly lucky to remain employed during this time, I risk my health to — quite literally — ‘get that bread,’ something that feels strangely subversive amidst the chaos.

Not to mention, the only people I regularly interact with are those who have become my friends while packaging pastries and loading industrial ovens. The onerous hours during holidays and weekends were made bearable by sharing a masked laugh with coworkers. It feels a little seditious to be able to go out and have these interactions, even if they are as simple as “Can you pass me another roll of labels?”

Although they’re often the highlight of arduous shifts, these connections are far and few between during the pandemic.

“I haven’t been able to get interpersonal with any of them and share stories,” said Bhalesh Thanabalan, who works part time in the bakery. “Which sounds like a dumb thing to complain about, but when you’re working in the same environment all the time, having that companionship is a benefit, and losing out on that kind of makes me feel down at work.”

These sentiments aren’t uncommon. As I spoke to Thanabalan, his comments resonated with me. As someone who has worked at the same job for a long period of time, I’ve been through entire cycles of coworkers. Usually, it’s easy enough to connect with them, but the pandemic has made this endeavour significantly more difficult. Everyone is stressed about their work, and the toil shows.

Long before the outbreak, positions at grocery stores were often undervalued — seen as nothing more than minimum wage jobs reserved for broke students and retired seniors. Often, working at a grocery store somehow suggested to customers that this was the peak of my capability, a sentiment that ate away at me on the longer days.

Alas, grocery stores keep the world running, regardless of whether or not there is a pandemic. And now, even federal governments agree — they’re too vital to pause on, even as entire provinces shut down.

Still, I’ve noticed one thing. Being essential does not mean being properly compensated or acknowledged. The job isn’t the most glamorous, and we’re risking our lives and doing much more than just staying home.

Rhea Jerath, a former coworker of mine, noted that it’s difficult to maintain physical distancing and protocols while working in a grocery store. “People walk in and out,” she said. “And you don’t know who’s walking in, who’s walking out… I can understand why it’s difficult for the store.”

The cramped and small conditions of the bakery mean that there’s hardly ample space to maintain the suggested two metres between employees. I’ve often noticed employees who are unable to physically distance — some sections can’t even hold two people.

“[Managers] kind of put a little too much pressure on us,” said Thanabalan. “We haven’t been getting orders in as often either, so if we do overfill and we waste a lot, we don’t have enough to replenish… And the managers blame it on us.”

While Thanabalan only works one closing shift a week, he still notices how frequently stock issues affect the store. People aren’t panic buying anymore, but employees are still pressured to make and sell more products. Between working too hard and not getting paid enough, leaving the job is often discussed, but at what cost? Essential workers have been given quite the shock at their workplaces — surely they should be better compensated for their services.

This sort of narrative is common among essential workers, not only from managers, but customers as well. Though likely unintentional, the stress of working during this time is exacerbated by how difficult it is to maintain and enforce preventative measures during the pandemic. It’s almost second nature to remove your mask when speaking to someone working behind the counter, but this puts us in an uncomfortable position. It’s better to speak up.

More and more students are finding themselves deemed as essential workers these days. Some of the largest companies that fall under this category naturally attract students. While students have increased their presence in health care positions through internships and co-op placements, they also fill the jobs that are often unseen.

Doing this work behind the scenes comes with change which requires resilience, something that students are becoming more capable of while adapting to numerous changes during the pandemic. From Zoom classes to planning virtual events to hang out with friends, students are excellent at finding solutions to the changes that sprouted from the pandemic.

Jacqueline Moodie, a second-year nursing student, reflects on her unpaid clinical placement experiences in a geriatric hospital this past year. “I’m working with a population that’s more vulnerable. Because not all of them are vaccinated yet either, and not all the nurses are vaccinated I kind of keep [the hospital] as my bubble and then I’m sort of staying away from people, at least while I’m in placement. Just to make sure I’m not giving it to old patients who probably can’t handle it.”

These are some of Moodie’s first placements as a nursing student, and she’s trying her best to be extremely cautious during this time. It’s clear that the pandemic has affected her clinical rotations, but she’s making the best of it by connecting with her patients.

“[My older patients] all want to chat,” she mentioned. “They’re so happy if you just sit down and let them talk to you about their family and stuff. It’s really cute, but it’s a lot of work for sure.” Though it’s a cliché, it’s evident that change is inevitable — especially now.

While there’s a sense of unpredictability for those who are laid off or temporarily unemployed, essential workers do have a little more stability in their lives. Though many of these workers have to manage their academic careers, the world is depending on them to go to work. So, for minimum wage, they remain on the job. Ultimately, essential workers are faced with a fundamental question as they don their uniforms for work each day: if not them, then who?

This type of change prompts us to think about the future and reflect on the past. The duality of this thinking, however, could be a vehicle for another type of change — the type that redefines the way we think about essential workers. While I never thought of my part-time job as respectable, the pandemic has changed yet another thing: my perspective.

It goes without saying that the pandemic has transformed everything about the world. Nearly all facets of our lives have been altered in some way due to COVID-19, which raises several questions about our future: how is this going to play out long term? How will we regard essential workers after the pandemic passes? Will we ever go back to normal?

Only time will tell.

Cover visual: Essential workers have played a vital role during the pandemic. PIRAKASINI (KASHI) CHANDRASEGAR/THE VARSITY