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Photo by Daniel Lincoln red Tims ceramic mug

An Open Letter from a Fast Food Employee Working in a Pandemic

I started working at a Tim Hortons, Canada’s leading coffee shop franchise, in January 2020. It was just before the pandemic was declared, before Canada had its first confirmed case, and right before I was about to give up on everything.

I took the job in a desperate attempt to tide things over as I worked through the interview process for a dream job. My interview process is now on hold directly because of COVID19, and I know it may never resume. Of course, there was no guarantee that I would have gotten the job anyway.

For a decade, I’ve labelled myself as someone who couldn’t work in fast food or retail. I didn’t think I was capable of it. When I applied, I was terrified they would hire me, fire me, and I would be back at square one and scrambling for rent. Somehow, I discovered a part of myself I didn’t know: A young adult who thrives on task-oriented work, who enjoys a fast pace to make the shift go by faster, and who snowballs their work ethic into side hustles.

I have only worked in this industry for three and a half months. My co-workers are long-term employees of the company and the pandemic is unlike anything they’ve seen.

“I never thought this would happen,” they utter frequently. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

My perspective doesn’t come from years of knowledge of this service. I am simply the friendly employee who smiles through the headset to try and brighten your day.

The beginning of this job was very rough, and despite it being a minimum wage position in a demanding environment, I’m glad I work it. The work I put out feels valuable. Each paycheque is earned, well-deserved, and reminds me why I endure the soreness and the messes. The customers are, by and large, a joy.

But that hasn’t been the case since the pandemic began.

Dear customers,

You are the greatest risk to my health.

I wear a mask even when I am not at the window in the drive-thru-only shop, just in case. I wash my hands until they are dry, cracking, and bleeding because I don’t want to transmit germs from your hands to my hands to my body, or from your hands to the customer after you. We’ve reduced the multitasking that lends to our speed of service in order to protect against cross contamination.

You are also the greatest risk to your own health.

You put yourself in danger with every person that you come into contact with. Every person has a web of exchanges that are unknown to you, crowds of people whose health you can’t know. Every trip outside your bubble is a possibility of exposure.

These are the reasons why the government says to make essential trips only.

And, by and large, fast food stops are not an essential trip.

You are not all the same.

To the essential workers: waste management, construction, health care, utility maintenance, grocery store workers, shipping and cargo, and more.

You are the sole light in my shift and I wish I could give you free coffee. I work with you and hope that we all stay safe as we continue to hold up the very foundation of our society. I see some of you with worry creasing your brows, the almost sorrowful gratitude in each “thank you”, the relief when you come to the window and I already have your regular order ready because I saw your truck.

We can get through this. I hope you avoid getting sick, but if you do get sick, I hope you survive.

If you don’t survive, I will mourn your absence.

To the customers coming through because we are an excuse for you to get out of the house:

Stay the hell home.

I don’t want to serve you a treat. I don’t want to listen to your children squealing in the backseat as you try to get an answer from them about what flavour of sugar they want today. While you may appreciate that we’re open and give you respite in these hard times, you put yourself at risk because the employees are put at risk.

I will serve you with a smile because I have to, but there is a silent resentment in each visit from someone who divulges that their trip is non-essential.

If you treat yourself to a beverage so often that we recognize your voice every morning, you’re not treating yourself. You’re indulging a habit.

What sacrifices can you make?

Can you give up your large iced coffee with extra cane syrup? Can you and your dog forego a plain Timbit today and tomorrow? Where can you lose the comfort for just a few more days?

If you are too lazy to make lunch for your family, and you tell me as much, part of me loses hope that we can make it through this pandemic with as few lives lost as possible.

You were too lazy?


Not incapable, but simply unwilling?

You hammer home the fact that fast food is a convenience that the majority access as a luxury, as something to make your life easier rather than essential.

There is a minority of people who rely on fast food for sustenance; people who have a Toonie to their name from begging and need something to get through the day; people who just haven’t gotten their paycheque yet and found five bucks in a coat to feet themselves and their kid.

I’m not in a position to judge who comes through for essential needs and not. I know only when you tell me.

We are an essential service simply because we provide something all humans need: food, hydration, and warmth.

Ask yourself if you need to be here.

Ask yourself if you can suck it up and buy a coffee maker for the same price as your month of daily large Double Doubles (2 bucks a drink? 30 days? You’ve spent 60 dollars on coffee that someone else made, and you’ve thrown out 30 cups and lids that are a nuisance to waste management.) You’ve also had a daily 6 teaspoons of added sugar per drink. Just some food for thought.

“Why don’t you just quit then?”

Because I don’t want to.

Because, surprising everyone including myself, I have grown to love my job. It may be stressful at times, and I may have cried at times, but that’s life. Life and work have hard spots. How dare you try to deny me the gamut of human experience and emotion, assuming that my goal in life is to never feel anything uncomfortable.

Because as much as I complain and struggle, I value the work that I do. I am an extrovert and love to touch base with the regulars, the sweethearts who exude appreciation, who did so even before the pandemic. Complaints come from everywhere, and especially jobs, and you have no right to want a complaint-free employee from a fast food restaurant who still serves you with a smile.

But you want to know the biggest reason I can’t quit?

Because I haven’t contributed enough to EI to apply for it if I did quit, and CERB is ineligible to people who voluntarily quit their job. My bills haven’t stopped. I still need to pay my living expenses, eat, and take care of myself.

As they keep saying, the economy continues. Money still flows. Payments are made and bills are due.

If my plea for you to stay home sparks a response of asking me to leave behind my means of livelihood and survival, please… Please check your entitlement to the service I provide.

We are all struggling and I know it’s hard to adjust a habit of going to Tims or stopping for a donut on your way home from work or the grocery store.

I know it’s hard.

I have only gone to work and the grocery store. I can’t go buy new clothes that I need. I can’t see my family. I can’t pet my neighbours’ dogs. There are a multitude of hobbies now inaccessible to me because the stores have closed. These are the sacrifices I’ve made in order to continue serving the general public.

What sacrifices will you make to limit how many people get sick?

What sacrifices will you make to protect yourself, your family, your room mates, your friends, your neighbours?

Can you give up your coffee?

Not every day. Maybe try just one day this week. A small change. Limit the trips you make.

If not for my sake, then at least for yours.



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One Comment

  • So much of what you have said here hits home for me on a personal level. Not because of myself. I am not working. I lost my job just before all this started and I am heading back to school the 1st of June, but for my husband. We live in Canada too and he works at Walmart. We love our Tims. However since the first cases of COVID-19 here we have limited Tims to only when we are already out. My hubby doesn’t drive so I drive him in every day. Sometimes he will grab a Tims on the way in to work and I will get something cause I am already there in the car in the drivers seat.

    We went for our weekly grocery shopping today after picking him up (only he goes into the store) and I noticed how full the Walmart and Superstore parking lots were, how people were going in two at a time (couples) into the stores. How the roads were just packed on a Sunday. I saw people standing and chatting in the parking lots without putting any distance (even with distance they shouldn’t have been) and then going into the store, putting my husband and his co-workers in jeopardy. I scares the crap out of me (for him, for myself). I also saw people out with their kids on a Sunday, going through the Tims or McDonalds drive-thru. Going for Sunday drives. Why can’t people get it in thier heads that this is extremely dangerous? That they are putting people at risk! Including themselves. We haven’t seen our families in over a month. We are all in this together but unfortunately, some are more invested in protecting the vulnerable or essential workers than others. It makes me so mad. Sorry about the length of this comment ..

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