I’m a burnt-out barista, and I don’t know if I’ll return to my minimum wage job

This First Person column is the experience of Chloe Peel, a student and barista in Montreal who is currently on leave for burnout. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

“We’re hiring!” signs adorn the doors and windows of seemingly every business in Montreal, and yet nobody seems to be applying. Everyone is wondering where the workers have gone, and yet nobody is checking in on those workers — often students and young people — who still occupy these service jobs.

The reality is that we’re burned out. I speak from experience as I am a 21 year old currently on medical leave from my job as a barista due to the enormous stress of this seemingly easy job.

Even before the pandemic, young people were speaking out about the low minimum wage in Quebec, about employers not being flexible enough with our work schedules to accommodate school and internships, about clientele being increasingly rude and demanding much more. Since then, our list of frustrations has gotten exponentially longer. 

We worked in person from day one of the pandemic, stocking grocery store and pharmacy shelves and preparing quick meals for essential workers (the reason fast food restaurants stayed open). Not only have we been the public’s only consistent in-person interactions over the past nearly two years, but we also became enforcers of public health regulations. From mask mandates starting in July 2020 to the still-new vaccine passport, we’re the ones who have to enforce these rules. We’re the face of changes that so many people don’t understand, and are often reluctant to comply with.

This leads to a lot of abuse. I’ve had people yell and swear at me. A fellow barista had a drink thrown at them.

With the mounting pressure on us at work, on top of also having to adapt to our new lives of Zoom university and our social and dating lives coming to a complete halt — which left us isolated in our tiny student apartments — many of us tried to speak up. The general response: if you don’t like your work conditions, find another job. So, facing job insecurity and public apathy, we did as we were told and found other sources of income.

WATCH | Youth who toil in grocery stores, cafés and restaurants feel the strain:

Out of the Dark: Being… Essential

As the stress of the pandemic wears on, Quebec’s young adults do the essential work that is often overlooked. 3:54

At my café, less than half of the staff from this time last year is still around. Many quit out of frustration; others, like me, were advised by medical and mental health specialists to take some time off. This crisis has a domino effect. Once a handful of people quit, we become short staffed and clients get longer wait times, which in turn leads to more complaints from frustrated clients that we try to manage — only further discouraging the brave souls who have been sticking it out.

And why would anyone want to apply for a job in an environment where the current staff are barely hanging on? Especially for our strikingly low minimum wage.

But at the same time, quitting isn’t an option for everyone — meaning the risk of burnout for some is even higher. Young people typically work service jobs to pay for school or to build up experience in their field. For this system to work, these “student jobs” can’t be our entire lives.

Applying for new jobs is time and energy consuming, and interviews and training tend to have much less scheduling flexibility than the shifts we would work once we’re hired. Many of us simply can’t afford that instability.

To all those asking what happened to service workers? We either escaped the industry or crumbled under the pressure, after being constantly reminded that nobody really cares about “unskilled labour.” As for what to do now, I suggest taking time to listen to those who are still around. Most of us simply want to be treated, and paid, fairly. We deserve better, so either provide better working conditions and wages or accept that we’re moving on.

Even after the Canada Recovery Benefit ends, these problems aren’t going anywhere.

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