Supermarkets sweep

Photographers, teachers and waiters all felt compelled to change jobs because of the pandemic, some of them working for retailers

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For many people across the country, the beginning of the lockdown in March signalled a temporary pause in their working lives. Bars and restaurants were closed indefinitely. Live events were cancelled, classrooms closed and flights grounded. Whole industries temporarily shut down overnight.

Thousands were furloughed, others were let go. As a result, the coronavirus pandemic has led to an unemployment crisis. In April, the number of people claiming benefits increased by the most since records began, reaching almost 2.1 million – an increase of almost 70 per cent.

But for some, the pandemic has led them to new roles, ones they never dreamt they’d be working in at the start of this year.

Big Issue North spoke to four northern workers who have adapted to the changing job market.

Jacqueline Buckland, freelance social media consultant and photographer, now working at a supermarket (main photo)

I went freelance in February as a food photographer and working in social media. My plan was to do half social media working in agency support and half finding my own clients. I did two shoots, one for a cheese shop and one for a little café, then I found some freelance work working for an agency for a month.

Then coronavirus hit. Everything went into lockdown. I had three conversations lined up with two agencies and one client who was interested in working with me in house, and they just died overnight.

The agency I was working for finished my contract early by about a week – that was on the Tuesday. Then by the Thursday I’d heard supermarkets were looking for staff*. I went onto the Tesco website and there was a part-time role in my local store, but as I was applying the website kept crashing because so many people were on there. I went into the store and spoke to one of the managers, and he said if you come in tomorrow there will be someone looking after recruitment.

The following morning I went back to the store and they just took me straight upstairs into the staff area. I didn’t even have an interview.

I thought going in was going to be the start of the application process, but no. They trained me for about 20 minutes on the till and said do you want to have a go? And that was it.

I love my new job. I’ve never worked in a supermarket but I have worked in retail before. I used to work in Kendals on Deansgate. I was there for five years throughout university and during my masters, so it has actually been really refreshing to go back. I think in these circumstances you feel like you are helping people and making a difference and providing a valid service, so it’s actually been really rewarding.

I was given a 12-week contract but there are a few vacancies in the store, so I think I will apply for a permanent part-time role and juggle it with my freelance work. It’s such a great place to work, people are really nice and supportive, and in a nice way you don’t have to take your work home with you, whereas working in an office environment you do.

Chris Waugh, teaching assistant and student adviser, now working as a support worker

I’m a PhD student at the University of Manchester and prior to the pandemic I was working as a teaching assistant in sociology and working part time in the university’s advice service. Both of those things have obviously been suspended because the university has closed down, and that’s how I got into working in support work.

The university closed down on 23 March, and then there was a period until the beginning of April where everything was a bit up in the air. There was talk about whether we were going to carry on in some online way, but it became clear from the very beginning of April that the work I did was going to be incredibly hard to translate to an online format so [the university] essentially said sorry, everything is kind of on hold until we can reopen the campus.

When the lockdown was announced I was worried, and I felt the same sort of anxiety a lot of people did. It was the early days when it wasn’t really clear what was happening with furlough payments. None of it felt real.

I was worried about rent, the essentials. I had some savings but I knew they would not last forever. What really hit me was the realisation that if I didn’t get something soon I would have nothing, especially as I’m not eligible for Universal Credit because I’m in full-time education. Like many people I was scared about not being able to afford my bills. The financial anxiety hit really hard.

After I’d taken a few days to let it all sink in I started looking for work. Initially I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do in the current circumstances. I had been involved in a lot of advice roles in the past but I didn’t know whether that translated well into support work. I was quite lucky when I spotted the advert for Making Space, which is where I work now as a support worker working with vulnerable people in the community, particularly people with learning difficulties and mental illnesses.

I feel lucky. Not only is it work that I think is important, but the team I have been working with are the sort of people who epitomise why our frontline and key workers are the people who are keeping this country going at the moment. It’s been really difficult for them to transition through, especially when we’re working with people who may not understand things like social distancing, but the people I’m working with have been professional, they’ve been empathetic – the morale in the team has been high.

We’re doing the best we can, and we know ultimately what we want to do when things get back to a level of normality, [but for now] we can make sure the people under our care are able to work through whatever issues they are facing. Right now we just need to be there for them as much as we can.

Sarah Vallelly, supply teacher now working at a supermarket

I’ve been a teacher for 15 years, but over the past couple of years, with education becoming more and more stressful, a lot of people have packed in their jobs and gone on supply because they think it’s going to be a lot easier, so there’s actually a lot less work nowadays.

When the lockdown was announced I just thought I’m going to have to do something. My husband works but his company gave them all a 10 per cent pay cut. We also rent a house out that we used to live in and the tenants lost their jobs. There were a few things that added up to me thinking I’m just going to have to go out there and do something. I did a few online applications and the supermarket I now work at got back to me a couple of days later.

I’ve never worked in a supermarket before. My job involves picking for online orders. We start at 4am and I finish at 10am. It’s hard work, but the job itself I really enjoy. I put a podcast on my headphones and just get on with it, but the 4am start is hard.

I’ve always been a get out of bed, get dressed and go kind of person, so I get up at about 3.20am. I’m usually a bit of a night owl, so that’s a bit of a problem. I try to be in bed by 9am. I can’t do any earlier than that, even though I probably should. Then when I come home I have to have a little sleep to make up for it.

Being a teacher helps you to get on with everyone, and I’m the kind of person who says hello to everyone. That’s something that teaching gives you – it’s being that person who is the first one to say hello. But it’s a completely different skill set really. I just go in, quietly get on with the job, be nice and go home again.

The momentum with the job has stayed the same, even now people have stopped stockpiling. I think people have realised click and collect or having your shopping delivered is the way forward. I think it will carry on as well after things calm down again.

It’s interesting to see a bit of an insight into how stores work behind the scenes. There are always those doors in shops that as a customer you never get to go behind, so it’s interesting to see.

I think if I didn’t have to get up as early as I do and they paid a little bit more than just over minimum wage it would be the perfect job. I’m not that bothered about getting back to the classroom, if I’m honest. I think I’d like it if a permanent job came up in a school. It would be nice to go back and work in a team again and to be a part of a school, but I’ll just see what happens. If something permanent comes up at the supermarket, maybe I will stay there.

Daniel Hoogerwerf, waiter now working at a supermarket

I’ve worked at the same restaurant for about eight years now. At the end of March we noticed it was getting quieter. There wasn’t any legislation saying things had to close – it was just people being cautious and we noticed things declining. But then within the space of a week it took a turn and we realised it was a lot more serious than we thought.

It was a strange situation for everyone. A lot of it was just hanging around waiting to see whether we should go in and if it was busy enough for us to work.

I’m on a five hour contract, but our furlough goes on what our average earnings are, so I normally do between 25-30 hours a week. The restaurant has been really good about our furlough. We’re getting 80 per cent of our average wage. The only thing is our tips and service charges aren’t included, Sometimes we can double our wages with tips, so I’m a lot worse off. I knew I couldn’t survive on that money. Soon after our employers confirmed we were allowed to take another job, and I started applying at supermarkets. I’ve never worked in a supermarket before. I work during the night for the online deliveries. I am missing my usual job. Everyone is really nice in my new job, but at the restaurant, it’s like a little family.

Part of the terms of my furlough say I’m not allowed to work any hours that conflict with the hours I’d usually work in the restaurant, so it means I can only work between midnight and 10am.

I can’t complain because I’ve spoken to some people who have said their work hasn’t allowed them to work for anyone else. It’s a bit of a faff and an inconvenience that I can only work between midnight and 10 in the morning, but at least I’ve got that option to be able to do that when some people haven’t.

*Red Shelf Life, columns by a supermarket worker

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