Reflections of an essential worker

Recognizing the value in the sense of normalcy brought about by Ontario’s essential services

At her summer job, Tessa has found a sense of purpose.

When I think of an essential worker, I picture paramedics, nurses, and doctors—the people on the front line risking their lives every day. 

Through working at Costco’s garden centre this summer I’ve realized it’s not only the work that saves lives that’s important during this difficult time but work that makes life appear a little more normal too.

When the Ontario government first ordered businesses to close due to the spread of coronavirus, I thought I’d be out of a summer job. I didn’t see the garden centre, where I worked last summer, as being considered an essential service. Plants seemed arbitrary compared to groceries and healthcare.

The thought of spending the summer without a sense of productivity worried me, so I enrolled in two online courses for the summer term. 

Not even a week later, I received an email from the garden centre explaining we’d be going ahead with a few key changes: the centre was limited to a smaller space, strict physical distancing was required, and face masks became a mandatory part of our uniforms. 

I arrived at my first shift expecting a slow day, but the stream of customers rivalled some of our busiest days last season. Walking up to the store, I saw a line of at least 100 or more people waiting. Inside, there was another long line waiting to go out into the garden centre. 

This was my first indication that although the world had ground to a near-halt, people had not.

Because of the pandemic, Costco now has a dedicated ‘senior’s hour’ for shopping first thing in the morning. Now, my earliest days start at 6 a.m. 

Last summer, the garden centre would receive around 60 racks of plants to fill the store each day. This season we’ve reduced how much product is in the centre to create room for customers to shop while distancing, and it’s meant significant changes to how deliveries are managed. 

Instead of getting one big delivery before opening, we now get more medium deliveries interspersed throughout the day. Deliveries have become some of the most stressful parts of a shift—condensing flowers and making room for new racks on the fly is no easy task.

At peak hours, I find myself seeking out secluded corners to lift up my mask and take one full, deep breath.

I started my job confused about why people were so keen to buy plants in a global pandemic, but now I think I understand. We’re all looking for a purpose right now, and it makes sense to want to watch something grow—to see life march forward during a time when most of our lives feel static.

Even though my mask makes my skin break out, my feet hurt by the end of the day, and I’m probably developing a wicked half-face tan, I’m grateful to have my job this summer—and not just because of the paycheck. Working at the garden centre allows me to help customers recover a sense of normalcy and gives my day purpose. 

That’s not to say there aren’t days when I curse my alarm clock and count down the minutes until I’m done my shift, but luckily those feelings are fleeting and few. 

If nothing else, they remind me of the ‘normal’ summer experience many of us are missing.


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