When a Job Becomes More Than a Job

“No she can’t make that decision...she doesn’t even know that my mother is on a ventilator.” 

The woman before me let out a deep breath, furrowed her brow, and began putting her items on the conveyor belt with a little more force than before. She stood sandwiched between a cart of groceries and another customer safely six feet away. Her voice alternated between quiet defeat and gruff exasperation into the phone.

My ears perked up as I continued scanning her boxes of tinfoil and packets of cold cuts, but couldn’t help but listen in as she spoke. Her words made me flinch from behind the plexiglass shield at the register. My mask concealed a pleasant toothless smile that I put on for her sake and mine—a tentative attempt at consolement.

She pleaded into the phone, “My stepfather already passed away from it a month ago.”

The smile evaporated. The woman fumbled through her purse for her credit card with a cellphone tucked precariously between her shoulder and her ear. I didn’t know whether to look away or comfort her, but how can you adequately do either in the checkout line of a Target? 

In Target’s Bay Shore, NY location, college students are adding “being an essential worker” to their new routines. Bay Shore is a Long Island town with its fair share of multi-million dollar homes built along the coast of the Great South Bay with struggling low-income communities a mere few miles inland. A staple in the community, Target remains open and active to serve all of the town’s inhabitants even as Bay Shore’s number of coronavirus cases currently sits at 967.

In this time of uncertainty, essential workers carry much more than the burden of a demanding job. The emotional toll of COVID-19 ravages the employee in the drive-thru and the postal worker alike. While Americans grapple with a new normal that is working from home, essential workers confront the effects of the virus on a daily basis through the customers they serve. 

Michael Ampofo, a sophomore at LIU Post, has been working Target’s Bay Shore location for the past two years making him a witness to the store’s descent into madness. He recalled the first weekend the stay-at-home order had been implemented and seeing lines wrapped around the store at 7:30 a.m.

“When we finally opened the doors there was a flood of people running to the paper goods aisle, getting toilet paper, paper towels, cases of water, canned foods, and cleaning products. Caution was completely thrown out the window that morning, it was like every man for themselves and the store was only open for 5 minutes at that point, it was honestly surreal to see in person,” Ampofo said.

Those working in the back of the store have also had to make adjustments to their procedures. Jonathan Olsen is a freshman at CUNY Baruch College who applied for a job at Target at the beginning of April after having to leave his Manhattan dorm. His primary job is curating the online orders for customers to pick up. 

“Online orders have skyrocketed to the thousands since the virus broke out... so much so that Target itself has had a really hard time keeping up with the constant influx of pick up, deliveries, and drive-up orders,” he stated.

At any given moment at the Bay Shore Target, one will see flashes of the employees’ red uniforms darting in and out of the store with carts filled to the brim full of drive-up orders. A task I’ve done myself, drive-up orders often leave me drained of all energy and then some. Others long for a position in Target that allows them to go outside, a short reprieve from the madness inside. 

Hired at the same time as Jonathan and I, Crystal Lopez is a cashier at Target and a sophomore attending Johnson and Wales University. Dealing with the public on a daily basis, Crystal notes that most customers are more understanding or more abrasive than usual with little middle ground.

“People are much more skeptical about every little thing; wearing masks and gloves make working a bit harder than normal,” she said.

Working a cash register in an understaffed store during a health pandemic created the perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances for me to experience the first, and hopefully only, time a customer made me cry. Her words cut like knives tearing into my intelligence, confidence, and capability because I had accidentally rung her up for two boxes of Annie’s macaroni and cheese that she forgot to take off the belt. 

My cheeks were warm and my throat was tight as I stood there with little else I could do or say. In that moment the thoughts swarming around like bees included the two hours of cleaning I had to do after closing, the midterm I hadn’t studied for, and my dinner tucked away in the fridge because my shift ended too late for me to eat dinner with the rest of my family.