For many high school and college students, working a minimum wage job in between school and hopefully a long-term career is a necessary step. While many jobs do provide a safe environment for younger employees, the harsh reality of service work is that it can be dangerous, especially in grocery stores located in areas with higher crime rates. Along with this potential violence, many retail stores have an ever-present toxicity in the workplace, which stems from high turnover rates, understaffing, underpaying and long years of loyal employees enduring abuse.
I worked in a grocery store during my final years of high school and up until I had to quit during the pandemic. I learned some important life skills through working retail and gained some perspectives that I might not have come across otherwise. While it is important to work hard and throw oneself into the world at this age, it is also important to arm oneself with the knowledge necessary to be safe and emotionally healthy in a working environment.
Here are a few pieces of advice I wish I had been given before working retail.
Know Your Rights as a Worker
This one sounds like common knowledge, but there are many laws and policies in place to help employees feel safe in their work environment. In fact, there are so many policies — a good number of them with variations relating to the specific company — that it becomes impossible to cover all of them during the orientation period. This is arguably one of the more important parts of learning a new job, but many employees do not spend the time necessary to understand them. There are many reasons for this.
The high turnover rates for grocery store employees are a big problem. According to the 2019 Korn Ferry survey on grocery store turnover rates, “of all retail positions, part-time hourly store employees have the highest turnover rate, with 76 percent average turnover in 2019. That’s down from an average turnover of 81 percent in 2018.” In one of the locations I worked, some employees refused to take new employees seriously and — in extreme cases — refused to learn the names of the new people until at least two weeks had passed. Naturally, there is little sense in spending hours on training workers who may leave in this timeframe.
Besides the high turnover rates, many grocery store workers who join during busy seasons like Thanksgiving and Christmas have shortened orientation hours and are thrown directly into the action due to the need for more hands. Problems surrounding management are also common within grocery stores since those in charge often take the brunt of customer abuse and are extremely overworked. Physically and emotionally dead managers generally do not prioritize relaying every piece of information within the handbook to an employee with a high likelihood of leaving the company two weeks after being hired.
All grocery stores are required to provide certain protections for their employees, including worker’s safety training, human resource policies and laws surrounding safety from discrimination and harassment. This lack of understanding creates an environment where employees and even managers are in direct violation of store policy and labor laws, sometimes without knowing it. In order to protect oneself as well as other workers, it is incredibly important to read the handbook, in the case where one is made available, and to familiarize oneself with labor and discrimination laws.
The two biggest violations of these laws surround sexual harassment and overworking employees.
Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, by anyone, regardless of gender. Furthermore, it is okay to call for help when a customer or coworker is sexually harassing you. This includes stalking, staring, inappropriate gestures, comments about intentions or intimate interests, threats and any attempt to make unwanted contact with your body. Feeling physically safe in the workplace is a human right for any individual, and there are laws that protect workers against such treatment.
Breaks and Lunches
There are laws in place to protect employees from being overworked. Part of this protection is the provision of mandatory breaks and lunches, for which unions exist to enforce. Despite this rule, the daily rush of customers and constant hour cuts to employees make it incredibly difficult to get away for even 15 minutes. Be clear about your physical needs and know that — despite whatever adversity you might face — you are not being weak; this law exists for a reason. No person should be forced to work eight to 12 hours without food or rest.
How To Interact With Low Morale
In high school and early college, unless already living in these circumstances, many students are unaware of how hard some people’s lives are. After working at a grocery store for so long, I vividly remember the gloomy atmosphere never seemed to go away.
In grocery stores, as well as other minimum wage jobs, those who stay working longer than 20 years are often among the less fortunate. These people are the war veterans who could not find jobs after coming home, the alcoholics and addicts drowning out thoughts of suicide. They’re the people fearful that they might not have a bed the next day, the single parents who work 70-plus hours to care for their children and many people with disabilities who never received the help they needed to shape their lives. These are the people our society has chosen to forget.
Naturally, this environment is depressing. Coworkers regularly come into work drunk or high. The old woman who stocks the women’s beauty section shares the story of how she lost her children. In the break room, the veteran who tells jokes at the entrance regularly calls his terminally ill mother in the hospital. For many, the atmosphere created through years of abuse is sometimes that of self-degradation, and there are some who will play the “my pain is worse than your pain” game, which generally stems from deep-rooted trauma and anger.
The problem here is that it is impossible to find one’s voice in this sea of the unheard.
It is frustrating to not have the means to help everyone, and on the other extreme, it is easy to demonize. More importantly, one must remember that everyone is doing the best they can, trying to be a good person when life hardly seems worth living. Even though team members might rudely silence whatever exhausted comment you make, overshadowing you with their stories and their deepest hurts, please remember that it stems from that need to be heard. The best thing you can do is listen and perhaps offer a word of kindness.
Taking the Good With the Bad
There will be good, mundane and bad days. Sometimes, those bad days can be really bad, and this ranges anywhere from a torn trash bag to finding out someone’s overdosed on heroin in the bathroom. There is no real way to prepare, but it helps to learn how to roll with the punches. Despite these struggles, there are also days where the opportunity arises to help people in meaningful ways. Helping people feels good and working in a grocery store means that — even if there are rude customers — there are many occasions where the help we give aids in the creation of a better community a little bit at a time.