Want to save some local jobs? Get in line!


A simple, practical and almost painless way to prevent job loss in your community

Here’s a suggestion for practical and almost painless charity: In the grocery store, go to the checkout line with a real person at the cash register. It costs you only a little time and it may help save the job of someone who’ll otherwise be thrown out into a difficult labor market.

About 10 years ago, our local grocery store, part of a big local chain, installed several self-checkout machines. We live northwest of Pittsburgh, and because this is still a union, Reagan Democrat area, people lined up for the few checkout counters with a person. Very long lines formed. People complained about the store not putting enough people on duty.

A few days later, the management put up signs saying that people weren’t losing jobs because of the machines. They claimed they couldn’t get enough people to work the checkout counters. That was generally thought to be a lie and, given how many people I knew who wanted jobs and would happily have worked a cash register, I have no reason to think it wasn’t.

The store didn’t help itself. The self-checkout machines often failed. If the customer pressed the button for help, the light above him would start flashing, which is kind of a shopper’s scarlet letter. It might start flashing on its own, if the machine decided he was trying to cheat the store by bagging something he hadn’t scanned. The customer then had to wait, sometimes for several minutes, for an employee to come over and fix the problem.

This happened to me the one time I broke down and tried a self-checkout machine, because I wanted the old-fashioned paper bags. It got very upset with me for not bagging the item I had just bagged. Thinking the item hadn’t registered, I picked it up and dropped it into the bag from about six inches up.

It registered, all right, but the machine decided I was stealing something I wasn’t going to pay for. The light flashed. The people behind me shuffled and muttered. A bright, smiling employee eventually showed up and stopped smiling when she saw what I’d done. I was well and truly punished.

Still a person

Many people still go to a person. I do, because the demand helps people keep their jobs — the chain would cut them without a second thought if it could. It costs so little, just a few extra minutes at the most crowded times. Those minutes one can spend fruitfully thinking or observing or praying. And, as a friend said, if you don’t want to think or observe or pray, you have your cell phone.

Now, the store seems to pulling a different trick. They put very, shall I say, deliberate people at the checkout. Lines back up even when few people are shopping. One, if you saw her on television, you would take to be doing a comic sketch about a glacially slow checkout clerk. I want to scream.

And, of course, you experience all the usual examples of human frailty and failure to think ahead. The other day an elderly man waited till the clerk was completely finished and then hunted for his checkbook, and then when he finally found it, seemed not to know how to use it.

The next day a lady in front of me had enough in bills to pay the full amount, but insisted on giving the clerk the exact change. She seemed to think this was helpful — trying to be helpful. She spent a great deal of time rooting around in the bottom of her large baglike pocketbook looking for change. She apparently had not heard of the change purse. In the end, she said she didn’t have enough, laughed, and made an “Isn’t this fun?” wave of her hand.

I try not to make exasperated noises or think unkind thoughts. After all, they’re doing me a favor. They’re reminding me that my time isn’t that important, and that neither am I. The glacially slow clerk, the confused man with his checkbook, the woman hunting for change, all give me a chance to practice patience and work on accepting people as they are. They’re giving me a reason to pray for someone else. And I always have my cell phone.

Despairing of mankind

I put a short note about this on my Facebook page. It got some helpful responses, as well as those that make you despair for mankind. Some — mostly Christians, mind you — said that waiting in line was too much trouble or took too much time.

Others followed the current fashion of off-loading one’s morality onto a system, like the market. Having people at the register wasn’t efficient, they said, these people’s labor isn’t valuable any more, the customer had no responsibility for the employees, the market sets the conditions. Some even tried to make themselves look virtuous. The chain’s pursuit of profit helps create the rising tide that lifts all boats. Using the self-checkout machines encouraged efficiency which would lead to yet more improvements. To value people’s jobs only retarded progress. It’s just sentiment.

You can imagine what I think of this kind of morality. In any case, we have a practical need we can easily, and almost painlessly, supply. The people at the registers need their jobs. To keep them, people have to use them, so the store notices the demand. Get in line.

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