This morning at Albertson's, the store I always seem to wind up at even after I swear I'll never set foot in there again, I learned something that made me cringe.
One of the familiar checkers whom I see every time I shop there handed me a pen to sign my credit card slip. It was a Uni-Ball Micro, the pen that got me through college. It stood out to me because I'd been trying to find one in their stationery aisle and couldn't. The checker told me that she'd purchased the pen in a 6-pack at the 99-Cent Store. I thanked her for the tip, and walked out.
Then, something dawned on me, and I turned around and walked back in.
"Do you have to buy your own pens here? Doesn't the store provide them for you?" I asked.
"No way," she groused. "We have to buy our own everything here. When I work at the deli, I even have to buy my own gloves."
Ever since the great grocery strike of ought four, Albertson's lost a lot of familiar faces, and gained a treacherous new "Self-Checkout" lane. Self-Checkout works great about one-third of the time. The other two-thirds, I want to kick it in the diodes. Produce is always a crapshoot, and if you try to bring your own canvas bags, its sensors view you with intense suspicion and label you a criminal. Then the whole system shuts down and you find yourself back where you should have gone in the first place -- in the capable hands of a human being with the capacity to see, to think, and to love.
Worse than the fact that the Self-Checkout isn't very efficient much of the time is its more sinister purpose: to eliminate the human checkers' jobs. I've heard Albersons' staffers openly gripe about the Self-Checkout being more hassle than it's worth, and also because they know what time it is. That klutzy machine stands as a symbol of the lack of respect given supermarket checkers, despite their know-how, their efficiency, their competence, and their humanity.
The raw deal these workers were given after the strike showed that supermarket management seriously undervalues the contributions of their employees; burdening them further with the responsibility of obtaining the tools they need to get their jobs done in a clean and efficient manner, little things like gloves and pens, must chip away at them even more.
But every time I go to that Albertson's, I still see those same familiar faces behind the registers -- the long-suffering, ill-used, under appreciated workers who still manage to greet me with a smile. They know that store backwards and forwards, and always do whatever it takes to help -- running someone back to the dairy case if I've forgotten my half-and-half, accepting a mildly expired coupon to help me save a buck, helping me find whatever obscure ingredient I'm seeking in the depths of the spice rack.
I wonder how much longer we'll have them before the robots take over.