Chloe Peel was walking to work last fall when she felt the panic building in her.
Her breathing got heavy. As she got closer to the café where she worked, she felt herself starting to hyperventilate, tears streaming down her face.
“My mind is going through: ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore.’ But I don’t have a choice. I have to go into work,” she said.
After two years of working as a barista during the pandemic, Peel said that last November, she reached a breaking point.
She’s not alone. Businesses across Montreal say they’re struggling to hire staff, as more people shun minimum wage service jobs. In retail, that wage is $13.50 an hour. For employees who earn tips, the minimum hourly wage is $10.80.
Peel understands the frustration.
After that day, she wound up in the Douglas Psychiatric Hospital’s emergency room in Montreal. Her psychiatrist has since placed her on leave from work and school.
“[People] are leaving because they’re suffering. They’re not leaving because they don’t want to work. They want to work,” Peel said. “They just can’t handle it anymore.”
Added stress pushes people out of jobs
Peel said that before she burned out, she watched as many of her coworkers chose to quit rather than keep working during the pandemic.
She said constantly being on the receiving end of people’s frustrations, plus being tasked with enforcing public health measures, like the vaccine passport, wasn’t worth the minimum wage pay.
When she apologized to customers because they were understaffed, she said many scoffed at the idea that people weren’t working.
“And that whole discourse of ‘people don’t want to work, young people are lazy,’ it hugely contributed to my lack of desire to go in and keep trying,” she said.
Lorenzo Laurieri, a grocery bagger at a family-run grocery store in the city, said it’s something he’s heard at work too.
“[Customers are] like: ‘There’s no service here anymore. I guess nobody wants to work anymore.’ And it’s kind of frustrating because we are working. It’s just not enough.”
He said it’s especially upsetting since most of the people still working are his age, in their 20s or younger. He said their store used to have about 100 workers, but is down to less than half of that now.
While there used to be five people working to help carry bags to people’s cars, he said there are now only two most days, and they also have to juggle health measures, like disinfecting the grocery carts.
It’s led to some confrontations with frustrated customers, he said.
“People are being stressed out and it definitely doesn’t make it easier, and it can kind of ruin your day if you’re having a decent day, which is rare,” he said.
“I don’t think people really understand. Like, they know the situation, but they refuse to adapt to it.”
Working feels ‘more like babysitting’
A retail worker who spoke to CBC News also said the constant vigilance is exhausting. CBC has agreed to withhold their name, because they fear losing their job.
“Many people are still not complying with the rules set into place. It makes it difficult to feel like, ‘oh, hey, things are going to get better eventually,'” they said.
The worker said there was a recent point when half of the store’s staff was out sick.
Meanwhile, they said they’ve come on to a shift only to find one of their colleagues “having a breakdown” in the backroom, because they had been berated by someone for enforcing public health measures.
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“We didn’t make the decision to have rules in place but we’re on the receiving end of, like, people’s [frustrations]. We’re the ones they take it out on,” they said.
Often, the worker said they have to remind people to wear their mask properly, only to see them pull it back down a few seconds later, for example.
“I find that I’m doing less retail work and more like babysitting,” they said.
The worker said they have an immunocompromised family member at home, and they worry about potentially contracting the virus.
“Two years in, it’s the ‘new normal,'” they said. “It just sucks to still have to police the people who don’t have the self-discipline to do it themselves.”
Looking for better conditions, pay
If they weren’t already working, the retail worker said they probably wouldn’t start now, and they understand why some would choose to avoid service work.
They said they personally know of several people, including some employees, who decided to turn their efforts online.
“They ended up opting for ‘Oh, I’m just going to stream video games online and I’ll make a bit of income that way,'” they said. “And there’s a lot of others, like, ‘look, I’m going to do TikTok or YouTube.’ People find other means of income.”
Laurieri, the grocery bagger, said he’s fortunate, because he has received raises during the pandemic — but many in his field have not.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union recently criticized the Metro grocery chain, which offered a “recognition bonus” for employees — in the form of gift cards at their stores.
Metro, alongside Loblaws and Sobeys, had offered a $2-an-hour pay increase in the early days of the pandemic, but then cancelled it after the first wave.
Peel, the barista, said she was also receiving additional hazard pay in the first wave, but said it was cancelled after about three months.
Meanwhile, she said her grocery bill “skyrocketed” in the past year, and she struggled to make ends meet on a minimum wage.
“I think that a lot of these big business owners are complaining about having trouble with staff when they’re not prioritizing paying their staff properly,” she said.
Peel said she expects the labour shortage to continue so long as conditions and pay remain poor. For her part, she doesn’t ever see herself going back.
“I deserve better than that, and it’s not getting better,” she said. “So I’m going to do anything else that I can.”