Tuesday, January 13, 2009

in the bag

Sometimes I question the logic behind distribution of work. The jobs that are considered menial and worthy of little more than the minimum wage are often much more difficult and vital than the work of millionaires. Educators earn notoriously low pay, especially in preschool where the hours are longer and the work more physically grueling. Most social workers find it difficult to make ends meet, yet their case loads are unwieldy and their work requires a level of passion and commitment that should be rewarded with more than good feelings.

This reality is not news to me, but it came to mind the other day as I was buying my groceries. Specifically, as I watched my beautiful, ripe avocados disappear into a plastic bag beneath the hulking weight of a 4 pound roast. I took issue with this travesty on many levels. First, the obvious. Raw meat on top of produce. Just ew. Second, the plastic bag. I had plenty of reusable canvas bags, but they had been so poorly packed that the bagger had run out, and was now using plastic. Third, I did not want to speak up because the bagger was clearly working hard and doing her best. I am proud that the grocery store I frequent hires adults with disabilities. I am more than willing to sacrifice a few avocados for the greater good, and I generally enjoy the colorful conversations I have with the baggers much more than the banal chatter offered by the cashiers. But it irks me that the cashier didn't intervene on behalf of my absurdly overpriced indulgences.

On this particular day, the cashier was a store manager who had stepped in when the checkout lines got too long. His badge declared that he had been serving my community in this capacity for nearly 20 years. He had surely learned a thing or two about bagging groceries and about training personnel. Yet he was either not aware or not interested enough to offer guidance to his employee on the handling of my purchases. He stayed focused on the oversight of my credit card transaction, which I used the keypad to complete. And I paused to wonder, which of these positions should employ the skilled worker?

The cashier’s job is to drag items one at a time over a panel, making sure that the lines on the UPC code run across an electronic red line. It’s simple and it’s kind of fun – or am I the only one who gets a charge out of using the self-checkout option when it’s available? After the last item is scanned, press the button to signify that the purchase is complete. The customer then uses the keypad to pay for his or her groceries. The cashier pulls out a receipt and hands it to the customer.

The bagger’s job is to catch the food items as they move down the conveyor belt and put everything into bags. The idea is to fill each bag so that it can be managed by the customer, and to ensure that the food inside makes it to its next destination safe and intact. Cold items should be bagged together to retain their temperature, and raw meat should be separated from anything that its juices could contaminate. This job requires quick decision making, knowledge of safe food handling procedures, the ability to estimate weights and measures, and the ability to work quickly.

Am I crazy to think that there should be a role reversal here? If the cashier runs into a problem, the manager is right there bagging and can step over to push a button or whatever. In the unlikely event that the customer actually uses money to pay for groceries (do any of you use money anymore?), the manager could be called to accept it and make change if necessary.

The thing that really bothered me that day was that while I contemplated the lunacy of the situation while writing a blog post in my head, the next crabby guy to come down that aisle might verbalize his displeasure about the squashed expensive avocados, and that hardworking girl might internalize the opinion that she is doing poorly at her job. The job that was undoubtedly intended to enable her independence and nurture her work ethic. That would piss me off.


Rita said...

Ha! Here, we live in a bag-yer-own area. Seriously, when we moved here, every single store had you bag your own groceries. It was appalling. The first time, I stood there with my card ready, patiently watching the food pile up at the end of the conveyer, and when they informed me that I was responsible for putting it into bags by myself (and I better hurry because people behind me were waiting!) I was horrified. Then I had to hustle. I had to bag fast and furiously or the people in the line behind me would treat me to a blanket party in the parking lot.

It took any joy at all out of grocery shopping. Standing there and zoning out while your groceries are being rung up and bagged is the one little reprieve a shopper gets in the whole trip. A moment between finding all the necessary stuff on the shelves, arguing with the kids about it, getting it into the cart, piling it on the belt... and then wheeling the cart through the slush and snow in the bitter cold in the parking lot (we live in Minnesota, that's the weather half the year), unloading the bags into the car and carrying them through the snow and ice to the house. Having to fill that *moment* by rushing to the end of the belt and hurriedly packing the items into the bag and then the bags into the cart so that you can be DONE at the same time the cashier says, "I have your total!" just really was too much for me. I'm a wuss that way. When I was pregnant with Liz, it was too much. I told Mike, I 'll clean a thousand toilets, but please don't ask me to go grocery shopping.

I've lived in Illinois, Ohio, Texas and Massachusetts. I've been in Florida, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont and Indiana long enough to buy groceries in those places. Never, NEVER have I routinely been expected to bag my own at every store!

"You've GOT to be kidding me!" Was my first thought.

"But, where do the disabled people work, then?" Was my second thought. Former social worker here, most of our higher functioning adults worked in supermarkets. It seems they work at Wendy's here. All of them. At the same Wendy's. That's gotta suck for them.

Anyway, about a year ago (after what, about 5 years here?) a couple of grocery stores have started bagging groceries for customers. I go to those stores and am just so grateful to not have to bag my own that I keep my trap shut about anything they're doing wrong. I'll even chip in if they seem like they're falling behind! We're a self-service sort of state here, lol, so I know I'm not intervening.

Mike, he complains about stuff and says that he liked it better when we just bagged our own. I tell him to shut the fuck up unless he wants to do all the grocery shopping from now on, until the end of time.

So, my opinion on the bagging is a little skewed. If you would have written this about 6 years ago, I would have been right along side you, nodding enthusiastically (especially since I lived in MA then and they did everything wrong), but now... eh, I've suffered a little, lol, and I'm afraid to complain!

Me, You, or Ellie said...

I think you're on to something here, Jacquie. Supermarket Role Reversal.

When we're on the road, and go into a grocery store, we purposefully choose a line with a bagger who's "born to bag", so we don't have to face these kinds of existential dilemmas. Because not only do I not want an existential dilemma on my hands, I also like almost nothing more than well-bagged groceries, all neat and tidy and separated into their own little categories. Oh, dear, does that sound like grocery discrimination?

And no. I never use cash. Except in bars.


Kathi D said...

Funny you should bring this up now. Just the other day, I was in a line where an experienced cashier stepped in to help by bagging my groceries, and she was so precise at it that I commented on it. I recalled when my brothers had bagging jobs a few centuries ago and the rules were VERY strict, and everything had to be bagged just so. I still remember one of my brothers repeating a rule that must have been forcefully drummed into him: "NOTHING goes on top of bread! Not potato chips! Not one candy bar! NOTHING!"

Kathi D said...

P.S. I suspect if any of the baggers had even a little bit of training, they would do just fine and know not to smash avocadoes. Sadly, it's probably not considered an important enough job to require instruction these days.

Anonymous said...

Our problem and the grocery store is the meat counter... always a new person slicing the deli meat that takes 20 minutes... so annoying.

Me, You, or Ellie said...

Jacquie, I love this! You make so many good points. Perhaps the supermarket jobs should be reversed.

I'm okay with bagging my own groceries, and with people paying cash (although I rarely, rarely do so); what I can barely tolerate is when someone whips out a checkbook. Wtf??

I have to say that some of the baggers at Trader Joes are pure genius. And I think they are sometimes the more experienced employees.

Me, You, or Ellie said...

Sigh. If only we knew who that commenter was.


Anonymous said...

Wow - you have baggers and cashiers? In Canada they hire the mentally challenged to be store managers. And they're the only employees. The customer is expected to do everything else.

mumple said...

The Howler loves the self-checkouts and I let her use 'em as often as she likes. Mostly because it's not a nuisance to me (I'm a cashier and many times, it's easier for me to just do it myself.)

But cashiering is NOT for wimps, and anybody who has done it can tell you that.