Masks and the essential worker smile

Photo of Chelsea Leung

Related Posts

In the face of an apparently existent anti-mask “movement,” I sometimes wonder, what exactly have we even had to concede to masks? The ability to breathe down other people’s necks, I guess. Glasses that aren’t perpetually foggy, maybe.

As a “store associate” — company jargon for “grunt” — at a popular boba store, I have plenty of experience wearing a mask for hours at a time. Because I always forget my glasses anyway, I’ve got to say that masks are good, obviously. First, I don’t want to die. Second, it would not look good for the company if our store became a superspreader event. 

God, just imagine if the profit margins went down!

But there’s another benefit of masks: hiding my occasional exasperation or annoyance, such as when customers are shocked and offended that a bag costs 10 cents (look, ma’am, I don’t make California state laws).

Lots of people have complained that they miss seeing others’ smiles, especially those they took for granted, such as the smiles of food service or retail workers who were deemed heroes at the start at the pandemic but now apparently don’t deserve a $15 minimum wage. 

I guess those people suffering through symptoms of smile-seeing withdrawal haven’t considered that maybe underneath the average front-line worker’s mask, there isn’t a smile. I’m definitely not smiling when yet another customer removes their mask at the register to log in to their phone’s mobile pay with face ID. (How hard is it to type in your six-digit password?)

I agree that it sucks not seeing other people’s smiles — I’m all for basic human connection, too. But I also think those complaints and dramatics have a darker undertone. How come pre-pandemic, we always expected to see a smile from people working thankless minimum wage jobs? 

Honestly, what do they have to smile about?

The pandemic has confronted us with many of our failures as a society. One of those failures is the plight of front-line workers, who, even when recognized as essential, still don’t receive livable wages, an adequate stimulus check or even the basic respect that every human being deserves.

About two weeks ago, a customer, likely a potential franchisee, demanded to know whether our boba place is a franchise and then announced that his companion owns a Panda Express. (Congratulations. What would you like to order?) He then proceeded to ask my co-worker if they own a house.

On top of being wildly invasive, that frankly bizarre question only drove home the fact that with our current system, minimum wage workers, on top of probably never owning a house, are always reduced to pawns — pawns in other people’s business ventures and pawns in powerful people’s political games.

Of course, change is possible, but the precariousness of that slow-coming change is only confirmed by the population’s seeming unease at the recent changes in essential-business power dynamics. Cashiers, who now have the authority to kick people out for not following COVID-19 protocols, have faced backlash and physical altercations for simply asking customers to wear masks. There’s been mounting pushback against the mere suggestion of a federal $15 minimum wage and the possibility of essential workers unionizing. 

Unionize?! But aren’t service workers just supposed to stand there and smile?!

Smiling, after all, is the whole foundation of the tipping system that many essential businesses rely on. Being unfailingly friendly and polite to customers, including those who are not always friendly or polite, is how you get tips. And tips, at least in a boba shop, also go to the people working in the back. So you’re not just carrying the responsibility of your own paycheck, you’re fighting for everyone’s salaries with your weaponized smile. Better make sure your pearly whites — which your employee benefits don’t cover — are fit for display!

I’m lucky that I don’t need my current job to survive, but a lot of my co-workers and fellow Americans do. They’re working multiple other minimum wage front-line jobs where, pre-pandemic, they probably also had to smile at customers who have arbitrarily decided that as the holders of capital, they’re owed sunny smiles and bright greetings every time they set foot into a store or service. But what about what we owe essential workers? 

In the face of all the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, masks have at least provided front-line workers a temporary reprieve from constantly hiding all emotions but the expected. But as we move toward a post-pandemic reality, can’t we just permanently end the charade of expecting people working exhausting and mostly dead-end jobs to smile and greet customers as if they’re seeing God?

Contact Chelsea Leung at [email protected].