Circle K, Monday morning, Mid June 2019
I was second in line to pay for my gas and daily Diet Mountain Dew at the local convenience store. I’ve written about my experiences at these stores before because I find that they are a great place to observe a cross section of humanity. Almost everyone, at least everybody who Isn’t living and working in New York City, needs gas for their car or some other sundry that’s offered by one of these C-Stores. Because these stores are located for convenience in relation to people’s homes and work, they tend to see regular customers. This is another bonus for a guy who writes about the collision points between work and life. You get to see the same people with some regularity and you get to know them.
Morning is always very busy in this particular store, it’s the busiest in town. I’m not sure if it’s genius in design or simple happenstance, but they have large truck diesel pumps and they offer free 18 wheeler parking in back for ten or twelve rigs. What makes this special is that this store is located in a small North Carolina Town, and isn’t really designed to be like a truck stop you see on the highways. It’s more of a mini truck stop and consequently the truckers and locals use it as an informal social center. There was even one old guy who, for many years, was always there. I think his name was Lloyd. He wasn’t homeless even if some people mistook him for that. He was definitely someone who used the store as the center of his social life. For years he would just hang out all day at the store, usually leaning against the ice machine smoking an occasional cigarette or scratching a daily lotto ticket. He’d say hello to the regulars and was seen as a store mascot to the ever changing store staff. I offered to interview Lloyd one, but he quickly turned me down with a wary look in his eye. Apparently Blogs and Podcasts are not something appreciated or even understood by convenience store groupies.
On this particular day Rose was behind the counter. Rose is a woman I’ve known for a very long time. She lives somewhere in the area as I’ve seen her working at a different gas stations for many years, and for the last few, at this one. At the moment I was standing in line Rose was struggling with what I think was opening a paper coin tube. It was the kind any retail business gets from banks to help stock their register with needed change. I’ve observed Rose over the years. She’s in her 70’s, maybe older. She’s not especially strong or fast, but always seems to have been a good worker. As I said she’s lasted years at the convenience stores I patronized.
As this was the busy morning commute time the line was starting to get a bit long and the people in it started to have that slightly impatient look in their eyes. The young manager, who seemed to be in her late 20’s, barked something to Rose about not keeping customers waiting. After a quick second where Rose continued to struggle with the change tube, the young manager told Rose that she would get it, and jumped over to help the customer in front of me.
Having been pushed aside quite literally, Rose got frustrated, I would think understandably so. She slammed the register door closed in exasperation. That show of frustration and anger made the manager turn to her and curtly say “you can go home now, thank you”. The act dismissed her and most likely sent her home without the pay she would receive for the day’s labor. Rose walked into the back room and I didn’t see her again on that visit.
The entire experience reminded me of my research into the causes for the origination of retirement plans. Rose didn’t move as fast because she was older, just like the turn of the century factory workers moving towards the end of their careers. The convenience store was very much like the early industrial age manufacturing in that it needed it’s people to be quick on their feet and have a physical aptitude for managing the tools they used efficiently.
It was obvious Rose was frustrated that she couldn’t work at the pace, and in the way, she knew was needed at that time. She wasn’t working at that fast moving and stressful gas station for fun or to keep busy. There is no question in my mind that Rose had to work because she didn’t have enough money for her lifestyle needs and this was the job she could get. Assuming she spent a good chunk of her career in retail, she was most likely one of the millions who suffered from the realities of the nation’s weak retirement infrastructure.
Now in this particular case the Manager was insensitive as all get out. More than likely this insensitivity was created from a mixture of several factors. The most obvious to me is the pressure for performance put on her by the corporate office. This convenience store is part of a large chain and there is no question that every single minute aspect of store operations is measured in some way. If someone, like a store manager, is under intense pressure to perform and fast acting by nature, they expect those around them to be of the same mindset. A secondary reason could be from the difference in cultures and attitudes between slower moving senior citizen Rose and her twenty something aged supervisor. The point I’m making is that I don’t think the manager was fundamentally a tyrant. I think she was struggling as much as Rose was, but in her own way.
Looking at the bigger picture, I’m sure there is little consideration for older workers at the company. That deferential attitude develops when organizations keep people around for decades. Those types of organizations will have structured their operations to align to the needs of all the life stages of their workforce. Typically more senior individuals move into jobs that match their abilities and benefit from their extended knowledge. Think moving someone from production to training or quality control.
This organization didn’t have a respectful culture for senior workers because nearly 100% of their line level employees, including Rose, was there for no more than a couple of years. The average job transition in the economy at large is about four years today. It’s half that at convenience stores. It is a well documented problem for the entire C-Store industry. Even stable Rose had been at another location just a few years prior. She knew convenience store operations, and I’m sure that she was good at them over the years, but was now getting too old and slow to work in them.
Because of the low unemployment situation in the local economy and the macro demographics relating to the workforce, the company needed Rose as much as Rose needed the job. Unfortunately the working environment wasn’t a fit. After much reflection this led me to some conclusions.
Today’s C-store service work is similar to turn of the century industry. The environment calls for quick action, long hours, the ability to do heavy manual labor and interact with complex and ever changing technology. Even considering the extent of these needed skills, the job comes with low pay. C-store jobs are a good fit for those in their early and prime working years. In effect the company needs the work ethic of Rose with the skills and abilities of the twenty something manager for all the front line positions. Unfortunately there simply isn’t enough of that younger worker demographic willing to put up with the demands of the job for the compensation that’s offered. Even the older workers who maintain strong skills are starting to age out. The company, and many like it, now have to make a decision. When staffing, they can choose older and slower or younger and more irresponsible. Neither are a good fit.
There were ways the company could have structured everything better but they wouldn’t help quarterly profits. A quick fix would be for the company to simply bring on more associates. Food Lion does this. Lots of lower paid, lower skilled employees. None of them are highly involved with store operations beyond being a cashier, but usually most of the registers are open during the busy hours and there is minimal wait times. The longer term fix for the convenience store chain is that they could restructure the workforce programs to incentivize excellence and longevity. It could offer good profit sharing, sticky retirement programs, develop retail apprenticeships and continual training to let everyone be more effective in high demand environments. This costs a substantial amount of money in that the programs have to be developed, funded and managed. In addition, if done correctly, wages need to be paid while they are continually developing their staff. This results in the company investing a whole lot of money for lessoned productivity in the short term. It’s the best solution but changing the culture like this may not allow the company to be competitive. A more likely longer term fix can also be seen in the grocery industry. More automation including self checkout resulting in less, but more highly skilled, employees.
Regardless, that moment wasn’t about an older employee struggling in a young persons world as much as it was about the results of decades of a flawed economic system that was too shortsighted. For many who made a lucky career choice, were disciplined enough to not screw up their life in a way that hurt their future, and prepared carefully, they will not have to face that type of situation. For many others, a technical majority, they only have what they can scrape out of the social security system and have to fill in the gaps with a part time job that doesn’t quite fit their skills and abilities. To me, the whole exchange seemed to be a canary in the coal mine for the workforce. There will be many more struggles like this over the coming generations.
What about Rose? I don’t know her personal situation but I know it has to be challenging or she’d never be working in that environment. I know that she wouldn’t be dealing with that manager if we had something akin to a mandatory defined benefit pension plan for all workers no matter what you did for work, where you did it, or how often you changed positions. Unfortunately that’s a fantasy for another generation.
How does Rose’s story end? I honestly don’t know but I personally didn’t sit idle as that’s not in my nature. I don’t step in immediately as that could have complicated the situation. Ultimately I wound up making a referral to a partner program. In short I sent in some senior employment specialists to help Rose. Unfortunately, even they may not be able to help her much if she’s not willing to consider options outside of her comfort zone or if her needs are more acute than the program can assist with.
Even if I don’t see Rose again I’m thankful for her in a way she’ll never know. In one moment in a convenience store, while starting my work week, she demonstrated all of the problems with our system. Like her namesake song, the memory of Rose and her thorn stuck with me for quite a while after I left that place.