This week I interviewed Isobel Kane, a fourth-year student in TCD who works part-time as a sale-assistant in a retail shop. She started working part-time in September 2018, at the beginning of her second year of college, when she moved out of her parents. After years of babysitting, she got a job in a retail store in the city. I asked her a couple of questions to shed light on her part-time worker/student life during the pandemic.
Q: Do you feel like your work conditions have changed a lot since the beginning of the pandemic?
A: They definitely changed. Work seems easier because less people are coming into the shop, but it can be way more stressful than before, especially with all the anti-maskers coming in. Also, we don’t have that much interaction with each other anymore because of social distancing.
Interference from anti-maskers was a big theme in this interview. This is in wake of last Saturday’s anti-lockdown and anti-maskers protest on Grafton Street. Although people don’t gather downtown every weekend to protest, anti-maskers are regulars in a lot of retail stores and cafés. Kane said that ‘sometimes they would come really close to us and pretend they don’t hear us and ask us to put our masks down, or they would refuse to wear them and when we ask them to leave the shop, they’ll just say no. They put us all in danger.’ She mentioned that the anti-maskers were the main thing that scared her at work.
Q: Do you feel like the clients are more aggressive with the sale-assistant?
A: It’s about fifty-fifty. Some clients who’d refused to put the mask would be a pain to us, and some clients are really freaked out, like they would maintain the two metres distance when they ask about a product and some of them even asked if we could get an article from the warehouse because they didn’t want something that had been in the shop. Since we don’t have a warehouse, it can be a problem! But there are also a lot of people who are just really nice and understanding, who would be really chill about everything because they understand we are under a lot of pressure.
The pressure is indeed higher at work. She explained that since they had to maintain social distancing they couldn’t have lunch at the same time in the breakroom, or if they did they couldn’t spend more than fifteen minutes together there. She highlighted that the atmosphere was definitely tenser since colleagues couldn’t share more time together. Business is also down since the beginning of the lockdowns – in spite of the launch of their online service, she noticed a significant decrease in the number of people coming in and the sales are low. They also have to quarantine every item that is returned, and when we were still under level three restrictions someone always had to be by the door to regulate the number of people in the store and make sure that everyone wore their mask which is ‘exhausting physically because you’re standing up all day, and you’re by the door so it gets cold. Also we don’t have security cause we’re a small shop so we’d have to fight with the people who refused to wear the mask.’
Q: What would you say are the main differences between now and before lockdown?
A: Well, first of all we have to go to work wearing a mask and we don’t interact with other people that much anymore. A lot of the clients now know exactly what they’re looking for and don’t come and ask for our help as much because they’d rather limit their interaction with strangers. Also, we are separated by the plexiglass, which somehow makes me feel safer than before, especially when dealing with money and stuff. But apart from that, I wouldn’t say it changed for the best because there is more hanging around, especially during the week when we can spend hours without seeing a client. Last lockdown we had ‘click and collect’ so it was at least that, but now that we don’t it’s definitely quieter.
Job security and stability is a problem for a lot of students finishing their degrees this year. With the possibility of an economic crisis by the end of the pandemic, securing a job now is more important than ever and most of the students are hanging on to their jobs during the pandemic. Keeping a job isn’t an option for many students. Some of them were lucky enough to get on the covid pay-roll, but for those whose work in places that stayed open, they have to deal with anti-maskers and working in a hostile environment.
Isobel’s experience is not an isolated one. Many students are finding themselves in a situation where they have to manage the stress of their college work on top of working part-time during a pandemic. We all hope that it will all be over soon, but in the meantime, I guess all we have to do is hang in there.