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There’s No Such Thing As a Sick Day in Retail

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this before, but just in case it’s a new concept to you, here it is: working in retail sucks.  Try as I might, I have a lot of trouble thinking of one way in which this industry does not suck.  I did, however, think of one more major facet of its suck-ness: the culture of getting sick, which I’m obviously only thinking about because I have just so done.  So, as I sit here on a sick-half-day coughing and re-re-re-watching X-Men: First Class, I investigate that strange culture…

First, we must get something straight about this line of work.  Retail is not about the work you do, but the hours you log.  This is a cold hard fact.  It was true when I was part-time, and it’s true now that I’m a manager.  It’s true for the salespeople and true for the visuals people.  It’s true in the stock room and at the register.  It is most especially true, I can say from experience, at my Banana.  There are some people I work with who come in and chit chat, meandering the floor and picking out their own purchases until day’s end; there are some people who wear themselves out lugging shelves and scrubbing walls and folding piles; in fairness to everyone, I myself have been both.  And regardless which you are, your check still clears the same at the end of the week.  There is no benefit to getting your work done efficiently, because you’ll still have to stand around for the next however many hours, and you’ll probably even get in trouble for standing around during that time.  “Efficiency” and “a job well done” take on a whole alternate meaning in this world.

Which is probably why the concept of the sick day is such a reviled concept to the powers that be.  To literally quote my bosses, “it’s all about bodies on the floor.”  I started getting sick over the weekend, I guess.  Monday I was dragging but didn’t yet realize why.  By the time I went home that afternoon, I knew enough to stop at Walgreens to purchase tissues, medicine, and magazines, which I then surrounded myself with as I spent the next 24 hours in bed.  This brings us to Tuesday, when I called work to say I would be coming in late.  You see, although I had the sort of indefatigably runny nose that requires one to station themselves within arm’s reach of tissues at all times, and although that is probably not the sort of state in which you want to be on your feet all night, nor the sort of state your coworkers or the public probably want to be around, the notion of not going in wasn’t even to be considered.  I had to close the store, and that was that.  To call in a different manager to do this would require, by an unwritten understanding, something along the lines of emergency-room status.  With my luck that wouldn’t even fly, having already told most everyone the story of how I went to my dig for a week with a broken arm.

So I snuffled through Tuesday, and made it to Wednesday morning.  Again, I knew an entire day off would cause too much backblow; at that point the burden of being sick and at work is the lesser of two evils that also include an indeterminable-length guilt trip for taking the day off.  However, I also knew that there were two other managers on today, which is all that is actually necessary (one opens, one closes, both are able to leave for their breaks, the world is at peace), and so planned on leaving early – not least because yesterday my boss suggested I could!

I dragged myself in at 11 and promptly got about my business.  I had three main tasks to complete today: perform a stock audit (a 5 minute survey), revise my plan for tomorrow’s small shipment of new merchandise, and change cabinets to accomodate said shipment.  I did all of these in about two hours (including much heel-dragging inbetween). 

Now, this may seem like an overabundance of detail about my particular situation, but it provides context for what else happened: both managers working the day with me, including the boss who’d told me yesterday I could leave early today, hemmed and hawed when I said I wanted to leave early.  They talked and talked and talked, “and oh I guess it’d be okay if you left at 4, we’ll manage.”  Let’s remember that two managers to a day is a standard schedule, and one we’ve all repeatedly worked, not least to accomodate frequent vacations for both of these individuals.  Around 1 when the boss, Jeff, came in and heard my declaration, he responded, “Well, but you’ve gotta do your cabinet changes…”  “They’re already done.  I revised the map according to the late list too.  It’s all ready for tomorrow.”  He had little to say to that. 

In the end I did get to leave at 4, but I had to be the solo manager on the floor for about 4 of those 5 hours, and at 4:05 I had to march into the office where the two others were talking and insist that I was leaving and one of them would have to come out.  There was very little traffic in the store today, and plenty of people were working.  My work was done by 1, and I had no problem taking personal time (i.e., not getting paid).  So why did I have to be there?

Perhaps I didn’t look sick enough.  There is a major undercurrent, at least where I work, of suspicion when people “claim” to be sick.  This seems unnecessary since most people are perfectly willing to admit when they just don’t want to come in, and are not thirteen.  However, the majority of managers we have will greet a call stating one is sick and can’t work with an encouragement to cold call all one’s coworkers to find a cover.  None of us, certainly, are exempt from speculation when someone actually takes off sick.  (To wit, when another manager was out sick for a week recently, I was chief among those using air quotations to discuss it.)  This is not because there is any extra work to do, but because there are extra hours that need to be filled with our presence.  There is nothing more infuriating than knowing the thing keeping you from your sickbed – or a birthday party or a concert or a barbecue – could be done by literally anyone with a pulse.  At least two people today told me, “Well, you don’t look sick!” to which I could only lamely reply, “Well I feel like shit.”  But obviously their minds were made up.  When proving one is sick in retail, it is important not to cover up the redness of one’s nose or bags beneath the eyes; it may even behoove one to enhance these flaws.  Sneezing, sniffling, and coughing are not to be held in, but let loose in all their phlegmy disgust.  The burden of proof, unlike in a court of law, is on the defendant.

Maybe it was my own efficiency that did me in.  If I was really sick, how did I get all my work done so quickly when it takes some people an hour to put three shirts away?  In any event it didn’t help me.  I’ve heard that at some jobs, if you aren’t feeling well, it is respected and appreciated if you go in to get your pertinent work done before leaving (as opposed to not going in at all).  This is not so in my world.

Yet the saddest part remains.  Of course it was horrible to work last night at the peak of my sinus infection/cold situation.  I was practically passing out, leaning all over things just to sort of stand up; my body felt like every limb was made of lead and it seemed someone had put my head inside a vice and squeezed.  But the worst part of it is that when you’re sick, not only does your body feel crappy, but you feel crappy.  The big wigs at the Freehold Banana do not greet the news of sickness with the simplest and kindest two words one can offer, but with guilt: you’d better come in.  When my direct supervisor first started, I called in (actually) sick once, all prepped and ready.  I made sure my voice scratched apropos of how I felt, and was mentally steeled for the blowback.  I honestly faltered when all she said was, “Don’t worry about it.  Feel better.”  Some of the part-timers said the same kind sentiment to me as I left today; my boss only said, “See you tomorrow.”

Why is there this undercurrent of mistrust in this line of work?  Even in high school, if I wasn’t really sick, I would call and just say I wouldn’t be in that day; I wouldn’t lie.  I know we need warm bodies on the floor, but where is the compassion?  Why, when someone is actually sick and fatigued and feverish, can they not stay home in bed without the guilt?  Why must we prove how sick we are, even while coming in to be responsible and complete our tasks? 

I’ve heard it’s different in “good” workplaces, but I’ll have to take your word for it.

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3 comments on “There’s No Such Thing As a Sick Day in Retail

  1. Thank you for writing this article. Every word of it is the truth. I am currently very sick and contemplating calling out of my crappy retail job. I was at work last night, talking to some customers, when my throat was so filled with phlegm that I couldn’t speak without wheezing and coughing and hacking. I had to step into the back room and hack and cough and drink water until I could form a sentence. Both of my managers were in the back room. Finally, one of them said “What, are you getting sick?” Yes, obviously I am sick, I already mentioned earlier that I felt like I was going to pass out (which got no response) and now I am hacking up a lung, trying to clear my throat, just so I can speak. The way he said it was almost as if he thought I was faking the most disgusting cough I’ve had in years. So now I am in the position where I am expected to work 8 hours today, interfacing with customers, who will probably never return to our store when they see and hear how sick I am. It’s bad for business for me to be there, but just as you say, they need to use up the hours allocated for the week. What a crappy situation. Not sure what I’m going to do. Thanks again for the article.

  2. At my job, sometimes I have had to find cover, but not always. We can be pretty understaffed, and a few people who tend to call out more frequently are asked to find cover. But I have never personally felt guilted by anyone, only guilty myself if I felt like I was letting anyone down (which is a common feeling for me anyway, whether it’s truly valid or not). My boss and coworkers are pretty awesome 🙂

  3. Very well said.

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