The morning shift was always the worst. It was the summer after grade ten, I was sixteen, and I’d just been hired at Tim Hortons. I’d wake at 5 a.m. and put on pots of coffee while it was still dark out. The customers would start arriving about an hour later, many of them regulars with the same coffee-and-bagel order. One might think this repetition would build a rapport. That usually wasn’t the case.

Customers would interrupt my “good morning” to demand breakfast. Some blamed me for the rising costs of coffee and doughnuts, as though I could ever be responsible for what went on at head office. Others rolled their eyes or raised their voices when I took too long to count their change, the coffee wasn’t as fresh as they liked, or we were out of an item they wanted. But, no matter what, my coworkers and I were expected to offer service with a smile.

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Everywhere I’ve worked since then—Gap, a used bookstore, independently owned coffee shops—the story’s been the same. At the bigger corporations, the importance of the customer experience was taught in training and repeated on the ground: when someone is rude, you handle it without complaining. At the smaller companies, even if the expectation wasn’t made explicit, it was still a part of the culture.

This past summer would be different, I told myself. In a global pandemic, customers would be more grateful toward workers putting themselves at risk, right? Wrong. I spent June and July working at a winery in Prince Edward County. In the past few years, the island has established itself as a getaway for Torontonians, and the influx persisted this summer. When we opened for wine tastings in June, the majority of our customers joked that they were “escaping” Toronto, a city that was still largely closed due to its high number of COVID-19 cases. With a population of roughly 25,000, Prince Edward County has only one hospital. There was a small part of me that understood people’s need for a vacation—living in a city with little green space must be hard, and a beach getaway is undoubtedly appealing. But they were putting an entire community at risk.

What’s more, they weren’t very nice about it. Pouring Chardonnay for Rolex-wearing customers who don’t say please or thank you—or tip—is already tiresome. Doing so while wearing a mask, sanitizing your surroundings every few minutes, and knowing that you’re putting your health on the line is crushing. Customers frequently ignored COVID-19 restrictions, complaining about having to wear a mask or maintain physical distance. I was grateful for the job, but by the end of a workday, I was so drained that all I could do was curl up in bed.

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Across North America, we’re seeing the consequences of behaviour like this. COVID-19 outbreaks keep occurring at customer-facing businesses, and case numbers are surging as a result. Although Canada does provide a federal COVID-19 sickness benefit, it is inaccessible or inadequate for many essential workers, who are exposed to workplace outbreaks at higher rates—the list of affected businesses has grown to include restaurants, fast-food chains, and big-box stores.

The belief that employees should keep their heads down and do what they’re told—even if it involves being mistreated by customers—is a problem that existed long before the pandemic. The customer-service industry is built on emotional labour, a culture in which employees are expected to smile and be kind no matter the cost. Most customer-service employees likely don’t have the financial stability to leave a job because of unsafe conditions or for their mental health. Speaking up may mean getting fired—and, during a recession, the stakes of losing work are even higher.

Most service employees likely have a horror story of an especially egregious customer interaction that pushed them to the edge. When something like that happens, employees are still expected to show up for work the next day like it was nothing. Today, the expectations are the same, but the consequences can be devastating.

The phrase “the customer is always right” was popularized by Harry Gordon Selfridge, Marshal Field, and John Wanamaker, a trio of businessmen who had established their department stores by the early 1900s. At the time, theirs was a radical idea: business owners had never considered that the success of their stores depended on the happiness of their customers. Customers had to be satisfied, treated kindly, and reassured that they were right—even if they weren’t—because such treatment helped boost the store’s reputation. Over a century later, the idea is a mainstay of customer service, even creeping into contexts it was never intended for, like fast-food restaurants and spas. Moreover, it’s being used to justify increasingly ludicrous demands. The phrase no longer just means “be hospitable toward customers”—it now means “be hospitable toward customers no matter the cost.”

In March, when COVID-19 led to shutdowns and calls to stay home, there was a sudden shift in this attitude. People who were able to stay home began using words like hero to describe those who pumped gas and sold groceries. They put up lawn signs that read “THANK YOU, ESSENTIAL WORKERS!”

But the gratitude didn’t last long. Driving through Prince Edward County, I noticed that lawn signs were gradually being taken down. On Twitter, conversations about essential workers seemed to fizzle out. When governments started to reopen nonessential businesses, going out to stores and restaurants was no longer a luxury—which meant less pressure to regard employees as special or worthy of praise.

The term emotional labour has grown popular in the past few years. Conversations surrounding it spiked in 2017, following Gemma Hartley’s viral Harper’s Bazaar article about housework. Hartley’s piece reflected the dominant use of emotional labour at the time—a staple of white, heteronormative feminist discourse, often used to refer to the extra domestic work performed by women in straight relationships; as Hartley put it, emotional labour was “the job men still don’t understand.” But the term, coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1980s, originally referred to the work of suppressing an emotion, which certain jobs demanded. In a field like customer service, emotional labour is constant—and it takes a hefty toll.

Michael Daniels, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business who specializes in workplace leadership and emotions, explains that it’s easiest to fake an emotion when it’s close to how you’re actually feeling. If you walk into work in a good mood, it’s less taxing to smile at impatient customers and tell them to have a nice day. But, with COVID-19, employees are facing a higher base level of stress: they have to sanitize everything; they have to enforce mask-wearing policies; and, like everyone else, they have to deal with the day-to-day anxiety that accompanies living in a pandemic. Accordingly, customers are more stressed than usual too. “You have both sides of this equation amped up a little bit,” Daniels says. Since everyone is more on-edge overall, he thinks it’s likely that customers become more hostile and take it out on minimum-wage workers.

The scene Daniels describes, in which customers are increasingly frustrated and employees increasingly exhausted, seems to have become the norm in many workplaces. While customer-service jobs have always been emotionally taxing, workers across sectors, facing increased harassment and poor treatment by customers, report that the past year has been worse by far. A dealer at an Ohio casino says she’s expected to maintain the Midwestern hospitality her region is known for, treating guests “like family” even if they put her in danger by refusing to follow COVID-19 protocols. She’s been instructed to “smile with her eyes” (her face is covered by a mask) and be bubbly toward customers, and she has been explicitly told not to get into arguments with them. This last part is especially difficult—she says she hears a customer express an anti-mask sentiment at least once every shift and often deals with conspiracy theorists who openly believe the coronavirus is a hoax. For the sake of her job and the tips she relies on, she has to bite her tongue. In fourteen years as a customer-service employee, she says this is the most tired she’s ever been.

Employees have also seen an uptick in customer complaints. A barista at a Quebec Starbucks explains that this increased irritability is especially frustrating when you’re providing a nonessential service: people can make coffee at home; paying someone else to do it for you is a luxury. Julia Mountenay, an employee at a hardware store in Nova Scotia, has noticed a similar pattern. She says it’s become common for sudden altercations to break out in the store. Employees aren’t supposed to ask customers to wear masks, but customers will often remind one another, which can create tense situations. Other customers are erring on the side of extreme caution, not even wanting their items touched by employees. As a cashier dealing with this range of moods, Mountenay has to make a greater effort than usual to stay calm and friendly at work.

“I feel like I have to change my personality for every customer,” she says. No matter the customer’s opinions, she’s never in a position to disagree with them.

In some cases, it’s no easier for management, who feel responsible for keeping their employees safe while also making sure their workplaces run smoothly. Though these workers have vastly different jobs, they’re describing a similar phenomenon: long shifts of smiling at unreasonable customers has an outsize effect on their energy and well-being.

The reality, of course, is that customers are often wrong. They’re wrong when they refuse to wear masks; when they raise their voices at people working through a pandemic; when they take labour for granted. When a customer fails to acknowledge the risks involved in serving them, they don’t deserve “service with a smile.”

COVID-19 has made it clear that the customer-service industry needs to change. Though this has been true since well before the pandemic, the current crisis has highlighted the industry’s deep-rooted problems: the power imbalance between employees and customers; the emotional tax of these jobs; the lack of employee protections. It should go without saying, but the well-being and safety of employees should come before sales numbers. Even in mid-January, as Ontario enters a new lockdown because of a rise in cases, the province hasn’t done anything to secure paid sick leave for employees despite pleas from the public. Actions like this place low-income workers at further risk in a state of emergency.

At every service job I’ve had, there were always a few customers who went out of their way to be kind, to tip, to say thank you. When I worked at the winery, these tended to be people who lived in the area and were excited about supporting a local business. They would ask about my day and how busy the place was compared to previous summers. They would buy the fancy barrel-aged bottle I recommended. And they would wish me well as they left.

Maybe the pandemic will make more people appreciate just how hard customer service can be. But, for now, here’s what being a good customer should mean: doing what you can to support businesses while also helping to keep their workers safe. The kindest thing you can do for a restaurant employee is order in; the kindest thing you can do for someone working at a wine bar is buy a few bottles and skip the tasting; the kindest thing you can do for essential workers is the one that requires the least face-to-face, unmasked contact possible. Customers don’t always need to be right—they need to do the right thing.

Gabrielle Drolet
Gabrielle Drolet is a Montreal-based writer and cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, the New Yorker, and more.
Natalie Vineberg
Natalie Vineberg is a designer at the Washington Post and a former designer for The Walrus.