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(Photo: Getty Images)
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OPINIONBusinessNovember 16, 2020

Why it’s such an ordeal for retail and hospo staff to call in sick

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Speculation surrounding the new Covid-19 community case in Auckland last week has cast a light on the pressure retail and hospitality workers face every day.

For New Zealand, a new case of Covid-19 in the community is an alarming event in and of itself. The fact that the source of the transmission was initially a mystery didn’t help soothe the anxiety. A new level of outrage and disbelief was triggered by Ministry of Health claims that the woman involved had attended work at her employer’s encouragement while unwell and waiting for a test result. Even Auckland mayor Phil Goff weighed in with his condemnation.

That version of events has since been firmly rejected by the owners of the store, and the woman herself. There was no such discussion and the woman went to work on her own accord, according a statement issued via lawyers.

The retail store on High Street where ‘Case D’ worked (Photo: Google Maps)

Whatever the truth of the matter, there’s a reason the debacle touched a nerve. As so many of us who have worked in retail or hospitality are agonisingly aware, it can be incredibly hard to call in sick.

Of course, there are many responsible and empathetic managers out there who would never force a sick employee to go to work. But the retail and hospitality sectors can be like frontier territories – wild, loose places where the constant speed and intensity means the safety lines of employment law are slack at best.

The issue is not a clandestine one. Since the most recent community case and the surrounding circumstances came to light, several union bosses and politicians have thundered about the need to increase sick leave, and for managers to urgently obey MoH rules.

And while improving employee entitlements is certainly critical, it’s not really a lack of sick leave that makes taking a sick day complicated. It’s the psychological pressure that can be placed on entry-level workers.

Many current and former workers in these industries will undoubtedly be familiar with the scenario in which they’ve attempted to call in sick, only for a manager or colleague to say there’s no one to cover them. It’s a predicament I myself have encountered in every one of the six retail and hospitality positions I’ve held over the years.

For three years I worked part-time at the North Shore branch of a well known retail business in Auckland. There were several stores across the city, each with its own manager and relative autonomy from the head office in the CBD, where staff on vastly superior salaries took care of high-level operations and marketing for the whole business.

This independence meant the store’s manager was in charge of staffing, and the five or so employees were expected to form a strong team bond, supporting each other and the manager to get the business humming.

And while this happened to an extent, after a while I began to suspect it was a tactical ploy from the head office to offload the responsibilities for their store onto an overworked manager and a group of part-time employees – typically students – being paid $15.75 an hour.

Because of the low pay and the store’s limited budget, there was never enough staff to handle the intense trade and duties, and the manager was often forced to work seven days a week, 13 hours a day to get everything done.

I liked the manager, he was a good person. What this meant was that if it came to my regular Saturday shift and I found I was unwell and there was no cover, I would elect to work anyway, aware that calling in sick would force the exhausted manager back into the store and closer to a nervous breakdown.

In these sectors, there is seldom any contingency plan in place in the event of a sick worker. But even if the manager did find cover and I was able to take some time off sick, it was often a guilt-laden process because I knew I was pulling away one of my other colleagues from valuable study time, or even time with their kids.

The situation was even more complex when the store manager was on well-earned annual leave, and head office had divvied out the responsibilities among the rest of us. During weekend shifts, if there was some kind of breakdown in the POS system or major delivery error – common occurrences that were far beyond my pay grade and training – I would be, by nature of my retail facing position, the lightning rod for customer frustration or abuse. There was little help from head office staff; none of them worked on weekends and would seldom venture their time to help out one of the beleaguered pawns in the stores anyway.

In such a predicament, the most obvious and satisfying solution for a low-paid, part-time retail assistant would be to lock the store and leave as soon as your shift finished, business hours be damned. But as any entry-level worker in these sectors will know, the stern hand of discipline is always looming.

The safeguards of employment law and the guarantee of sick leave may broadly speaking apply in corporate office jobs. But in retail and hospitality they often go unheeded. Entry-level staff typically aren’t all that aware of their entitlements, and, as relatively dispensable commodities, often go over and above their contractual obligations to avoid losing their jobs or a scolding from the bosses. It’s hard enough for students to afford living costs, and they’re not likely to risk a meagre income stream, even if it’s through justified action.

Of course, these are my personal experiences. But while it is the age of pandemic, it is also the age of recession – a time when many stretched businesses will be downsizing their teams, forcing fewer staff – healthy or otherwise – to take on more responsibilities.

Increasing sick leave is important. But in my view, the situation will be a great deal less painful if head office executives and managers start getting their hands dirty and helping out in their stores – making the kind of sacrifices that retail assistants, waitresses, bartenders and baristas make on a daily basis.

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