Work vs Work

The grocery store, with the arrival of a new manager some six months ago, became a much more stressful work environment. A lot of ‘efficiency measures’ were put into place with the goal of moving people through and out of the store more quickly. Some of the efficiency measures (curbside pickup) encouraged people not to even come into the store at all! The latest measure is do it yourself shopping – you get a handheld scanner and bags when you come into the store and scan your groceries as you go and check out through the self-check out lane. This is supposed to cut down on waiting in line at the cashier, and of course means you don’t need to unload your cart onto the belt and potentially reload it (if the store is short (as usual) on baggers). I’ve tried it. It increased the amount of time spent shopping but did mean very little wait to exit.

Although some customers worried that doing their own shopping would result in lost jobs for cashiers, our store was always so busy that there were no (known) plans to lay off workers. There were plans to make the workers work faster, however, and that efficiency measure was the thing that made the job go from tolerable to stressful and unpleasant. The cashiers were supposed to scan 27 items per minute. They also needed to be accurate – fore instance, scanning all produce rather than keying in the PLU codes we had all memorized (too much organic produce was being rung up as regular, less expensive produce). That often meant taking items out of bags which were sometimes tied or knotted closed.  Opening bags slowed you down. Items that came up as “Item not found” when scanned also slowed you down as did the things without bar codes and the customers who took forever to unload their cart.

Cashiers knew how many items per minute they were scanning because the monitor above the checkout showed the average IPM (items per minute) next to a usually red triangle. Supposedly the triangle turned green if you met the goal but I couldn’t swear to that because I never saw it on my monitor or another checker’s.


That number acted, as it was meant to, as a goad. Especially when supervisors came through with their clipboard and wrote it down. It was impossible to meet the goal of 27 items per minute – you could do it on a single really good transaction of a small order of mostly canned or boxed goods but because it was an average over all transactions in a shift you couldn’t maintain it. All it took was one guy asking for a pack of cigarettes – located under lock and key at the far end of the line of check out stations – to blow your entire day. If the customer was searching for coupons or handed you their loyalty card before putting anything on the belt, or had a partner who had run back for an forgotten item, well then you were SOL.

Some cashiers gave up worrying about it and just shrugged it off. I found that difficult (I have one of those ‘A’ student personalities and I didn’t like those C and D equivalent numbers on my screen) and I started resenting the customers. I stopped chatting and kept to the script – ‘Hi, do you have your loyalty card? May I see an ID (alcohol)? Paper or Plastic? Thanks, bye!’ You were supposed to keep to the script, by the way, but I’d always enjoyed talking with my customers – getting to know them. It made work tolerable, even enjoyable at times, and for some of my customers it may have been the most human contact they had that day. You could tell with some of them that was true.

Morale went down. Cashiers and supervisors cycled to other departments to get a break from the stress at the front end. People left, loads of new people were hired. We were always hiring. Bonus checks – based on metrics including whether customers selected ‘very satisfied’ on receipt surveys – disappeared. And I surveyed my job satisfaction level, pay and benefits (one of which were my fellow employees for the most part) and applied for a better paying job at the local library.

I started working as an Information Assistant at the library at the beginning of June. The first week and a half was dedicated to training – there were a LOT of procedures and software to learn, as well as familiarizing myself with the collections at the main and branch libraries. The first couple of weeks was a bit difficult – just when I started feeling confident an unusual question would come up or a co-worker would be rude and belittling. The main library is something of a maze, particularly the staff area behind the scenes and I still don’t feel like I know where to find a specific desk or person at times.

Information assistants move around a lot – there’s a drive up window for people picking up holds, a myriad of desks on different floors/departments and the branch library (where I go twice a week). You never seem to work with the same person and sometimes aren’t really working ‘with’ anyone but are staffing a desk alone. It can be very slow and boring, or brisk and routine, or complicated and frustrating! There’s a software program for checking out/in books, looking things up in the catalog and dealing with holds and fines. There’s a software program for punching in/out and submitting timesheets and seeing your pay record. There’s in-house email. There’s a program for scheduling – very important as you may move between areas several times during your shift. And naturally they all have different log-ins and passwords!

In some areas, such as the drive up window, you ‘interact’ with customers constantly but always briefly and sometimes with very little conversing. In other areas you may sort carts full of books and audiovisual materials with only a few interactions with customers. The library, like the grocery store, has self-checkout and most patrons opt to use it. So there’s sometimes a fair amount of ‘down’ time which makes the hours drag a bit. The best part is when someone comes up and and requires something that takes some research to find it. The little girl who wanted books on unicorns (rare, just like the creature as most were checked out) and elephants (which we were able to hunt down), or the fellow who wanted a movie but he couldn’t remember the title just the actor who played the main character. Those interactions are satisfying.

The staff, for the most part are relatively friendly, but there is a hierarchy that plays into interactions. The grocery store was mostly us and them (management) so it didn’t really matter whether you were in the meat or produce department. And the old hands took care of the new folk whereas at the library there’s a touch of superiority among the veterans vs the newer staff.

As with the grocery store, at the library you deal with people from all walks of life. The library is open and free to anyone. If you live in the county you can get a free library card and even without a library card you can use computers, copiers and fax machines, read material, and attend programs. There are a lot of families who use the library and there’s a fantastic teen center (my son has taken up residence there) and children’s department. There’s tutoring and materials available in different languages. If you can’t make it to the library there’s a van that delivers materials to the homebound and occupants of nursing homes and there’s a bookmobile that travels to rural areas.

There are restrooms and vending machines, free internet and comfy chairs. Some people seem to be at the library nearly every day, and some of those people clearly don’t have many other safe places to go. Some of them just want to be left alone, and some of them crave human interactions to the point of becoming a disturbance to other patrons or staff. This is why there’s a fairly large number of security staff at the library.

I’m still getting my new job ‘sea legs’ but feel that this has been a good employment move. I’m currently working 4 or 5 shifts a week for a total of 20 hours, which leaves some time to work on our residence move – hopefully happening in mid-July. I’ll provide an update on that next post – things are going slowly and costing more than anticipated and some absolutely necessary car repairs (brakes, new starter and starter cable and oil pan) are eating into my budget rather substantially. But small steps are being made – the leaky pipes are mostly fixed, a friend of my daughter is going to clear out the weeds in the yard, and gas and electric are on (although pilot lights still need to be lighted). Cleaning and painting continues. I’ve added a few move and college related things to our Amazon wishlist – none of the windows in the house have any coverings, for example- should you wish to help us with the move.

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2 Responses to Work vs Work

  1. Laurie m Villotta says:

    I have read your blog for many years. I am a single mom of 2 girls so I can relate to raising kids, jobs and the other stressors in life. In no way do I want to judge you or your circumstances. I have wondered for a long time why you and your kids are not on medicaid? Why are you still living in a trailer with no running water? There are housing assistance programs to help those in need. You could have been in a place with the basic necessities many moons ago. You are eligible for food stamps,but you go without. Now that you have been teaching for a few years where is your money going. You should not have to pay for health insr from your job. It is a money eater. I guess I really feel sorry for your kids as you promised China that you would give them a better life and really wonder if that is true. Living without the basic necessities when there are programs available is beyond my imagination. There have been a period of some months where I have left my job as an RN,but I had the money saved to support us. I really wonder if all of you financial struggles could have been less if you had chosen to get help. Sometimes in life we have to move closer to where housing is available and get the help we need.

  2. The cashiering gig sounds incredibly stressful. I don’t know if any of the stores in our area have that but I surely do hope not.

    Congrats on landing the library gig and good luck with the upcoming move. I hope that it goes much more smoothly.

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