This is the first of a series of interviews with people coming from different walks of life. Life has changed for many of us during the pandemic – and this story is just one of millions out there, waiting to be told. Today, I’ll be sharing my interview with Gary, a supermarket worker.
When the pandemic hit hard last year, most non-essential businesses were shuttered overnight as governments enacted quarantine measures to curb the spread of the virus. Hailed as frontline workers – those whose jobs were too important or too essential in the interest of making society function – our workers at the medical field were labeled heroes, and we looked to them to care for the sick, especially those sick of coronavirus.
And as the early stages of the pandemic wore on, we all had a sense of who else comprised the essential workforce, and those manning our supermarkets were undoubtedly a big part of them. Today, we will be told Gary’s story – what’s a day in his life really like, what work-life balance is for him, the goals he has for his career, and how he envisions retirement.
A Day in the Life
‘I wake up at 5:30 to prepare my lunch, and at 6:45 I’m all but ready to go,’ said Gary, explaining how he needs ample time in the morning to walk to the bus stop and from there elbow his way through the queue that by 7:15, already extends through the whole sidewalk.
Gary lives with his parents and wife and two kids in their ancestral home, which is two towns away from the city where his work is at. Unable to afford the high rates of rent in the city, he chooses to commute for work despite the long wait at the bus stop and the hour-long travel time.
‘We have to time in by 8:30 because the supermarket opens at 9 sharp. Some of my co-workers have to come in earlier because of housekeeping duties – they have it worse than me. I used to be part of the housekeeping crew but I got promoted a few years ago.’
‘What’s different about commuting now compared to pre-COVID?’ I asked.
‘The traffic’s certainly not as bad as it used to be. But now with only a few jeepneys left, it gets very difficult to get a ride. Don’t get me wrong – the queues were still pretty long before COVID, but now the queues just don’t move fast enough because the rides are few and far between.’
During the worst part of the pandemic last year when Gary’s locality was in ECQ (Enhanced Community Quarantine) there was virtually no public transportation. When things eased back up, buses started coming back and some assumed the routes of the jeepneys which never seemed to return from the closure during ECQ. Today, jeepneys are back but are showing no signs of ever ramping back up.
‘Tell me about your work,’ I open it up.
‘After we pass through the tunnel and punch in our time cards, we deposit our personal items inside our locker. And it doesn’t take five minutes before we’re on the supermarket floor stocking the shelves. But sometimes when our Shift Supervisor isn’t too busy, he’ll usually huddle us up in the middle of the floor and give special instructions.’
‘What kind of instructions?’
‘To be frank, most of the time they aren’t really instructions. These huddles are usually done to address some personnel issues like quashing rumors, workers who are tardy too often, and recently because of COVID, doing a random health check for all employees. But most of the time it’s about gossip, really.’
‘What’s your favorite part about your job?’
‘If I had to pick one – it’s the thought of knowing that one or many of the items we stock on the shelves ends up in the homes of different people. It feels like somehow we’re touching a part of that person’s life, in a way that’s invisible to him or her.’
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‘Do you ever get irate customers a lot? Do you encounter a lot of Karens?’
‘Fortunately, during the pandemic there have been significantly less Karens coming through the door,’ Gary said with a chuckle, ‘It’s like customer’s have been more hesitant to talk to us because of the fear of infection. Or maybe it’s just harder for them to communicate with a face mask and face shield on.’
Gary explained that the bulk of his day is spent arranging and re-arranging the contents of the shelves, as well as a great deal of hauling boxes in and out of the storage room. He doesn’t feel the wear of the manual labor up until he’s back home lying on his bed – the aches of his shoulders and back reminding him of the physical toil of the workday.
‘How do you spend your one-day-a-week off?’ I asked.
‘Before the pandemic if my day off happened to fall on a Sunday, the family would always hear mass. Nowadays with masses only held on TV, we still try doing that, but most of the time I spend it with my two kids at the beach.’
‘Are your kids already in school?’
‘My eldest is still doing the distance learning. I gave him my smartphone so he could participate in online classes. The internet is said to be pretty bad, but I think he’s been able to manage.’
‘So it’s been your wife and parents watching over the kids when you’re at work?’
‘By default, yes. I don’t know when face-to-face classes will be back – my misis is looking to get her old job back in the city. Right now, taking care of the kids is occupying a lot of bandwidth, so she really needs to be there at home.’
‘Do you still have quality time with the misis?’
‘I don’t know how you’d define quality time,’ he laughed, ‘But yeah, we try to find time for ourselves at least once a month. During the pandemic’s worst we couldn’t drop the kids off at my brother’s, but recently we’ve been able to go on a few dates – you have to keep that fire burning.’
Career Goals and Outlook
‘I hope you won’t get offended by my next question. Aside from working in the supermarket, what else do you want for your career?’
‘A few months before the pandemic, I actually enrolled in a technical school for welding. I want to work abroad.’
‘How about college, do you have any plans? You’re still in your late twenties, after all.’
‘I gave college a shot some time ago. It’s not for me. For my kids, definitely – I will push each of them to get a college degree, but I’m more of a hands-on guy. After I dropped out of my freshman year, I worked in a machine shop and that’s where I got interested in welding.’
‘Where exactly abroad would you want to work, and how is that going to factor into staying connected with your family?’
‘I have some relatives who went to Saudi. And I know some friends in Dubai, who, lucky for them, are already vaccinated for COVID. Just shows you the disparity between working here in the Philippines versus working in a place where even the ordinary worker is given some importance. As far as my family goes, I’ll find a way to be back home at least a couple times a year. And there’s video calling, which I’ve been a lot more familiar with because of the pandemic.’
A Vision of Retirement
‘After working abroad – is that when you can see yourself retiring?’
‘Yes,’ answered Gary, ‘I’ll probably give it a good ten years abroad working at construction or at a shipyard. Hopefully when my technical school opens back up, I can resume taking my classes and get certified.’
‘How about running a business – are you interested in that in any way?’
‘My father used to run a vulcanizing shop, so I definitely have that inclination. I’ll need more capital though, and in order to get that I have earn money at a higher rate.’
‘Do you think minimum wage is too low here in the Philippines?’
‘It’s too low. But hey, it will always be too low. Somehow, I wish we didn’t have to pay so much for basic necessities – the unending price increases everywhere just puts too much pressure on you. Now chicken and pork are worth a fortune! What does the government want us to eat, paper?’
‘How about the cash handouts during the pandemic – were they of any help to you?’
‘No, not really. Because I wasn’t qualified. The people I knew who qualified were those out of work – drivers mostly, and those who worked in restaurants. The weekly bags of rice were helpful then, and it would certainly help if that continued.’
‘How about if the government provided a universal basic income, would that be a good idea?’
‘What’s universal basic income?’
‘Basically, the government gives everyone a fixed salary, regardless of what you did for a living. It’s more like having a solid foundation instead of drowning in the water when one loses his or her job. People wouldn’t have to apply for free cash handouts anymore.’
‘I don’t know about that. With deals like that, there are always unintended consequences.’