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We are unemployed employees

Recently, I’ve begun to realize that I’m not completely retired.

I do have this writing gig, which keeps me on my toes. And there are two books in the works, one of which I hope to bring across the finish line soon.

But it’s these other “employers” who’ve begun to really bug me. I never interviewed at any of them, and yet, without as much as an introduction, they’ve put me to work.

I now have part-time jobs at two supermarkets, two airlines, and a hotel chain. It still amazes me how these reputable companies conned me into doing their jobs. “No, Walmart, I never wanted to check out my own groceries.”

I accepted, decades ago, that it was my job to put the groceries on the conveyer belt. As I aged, watermelons became a struggle. Fortunately, that was about the time cashiers were given portable scanners, so all was good. Those big green monsters stayed in the cart, along with the heavy cases of water, and the cashier was still in charge at the register.

Now, when I shop at WallyWorld, the one or two available staffed registers have lines that run back to the Teen Jeans or the Toasters aisle. It’s worse than Tax Day at the Post Office used to be. So, if I want to get my afternoon’s groceries before Jeopardy!, I have to check them out myself. And I hate it.

Self-checkout is stressful work. There is only on-the-job training, and that recorded training voice isn’t always patient. Seems I have to scan everything MYSELF. Then pack it MYSELF. The voice got impatient recently when I was simultaneously trying to unload my cart, scan, pack into stuck-together plastic bags, then transfer the full bags back to the cart that I was still unloading. MYSELF. The disaster of redeeming coupons MYSELF? Not worth the money saved.

After being told by the scolding voice to repeat a scan or remove my last item from the bagging area, I am annoyed. It seems I don’t work at the speed they require of us non-hired employees.

And yes, while some of the machines take cash, all take your credit card. But none of them take a check. Oh, you can still write a check in the “traditional line,” that by now has crept forward from the Teen Jeans to Baby Clothes. By the time I’ve finished this drudgery, I am beyond annoyed. And they haven’t once considered installing a non-employee break room – with vodka.

The benefit for providing all this free labor? Cheaper prices? Fuggedaboudit. And there has been no mention of wages, vacation, or health benefits. No retirements plans or 401(k)s are offered to us.

It’s the same with the airlines. A few years back, when we began to print our own boarding passes at home, I thought that made sense. Unless, of course, one is out of ink or paper. Or patience. But their zero-contact procedures have become more complicated – for the passenger.

My latest sojourn began with scanning my personal identification block (the QR code) onto my cell phone. You know the design – it’s that black square with all the little squiggles inside that looks like an English garden maze. QR stands for Quick Recognition. It is very fast and 100 times more informative than a bar code. It probably contained my flight number, seat number, blood type and drinking habits. And imagine this – it’s my personal transaction code just for this round trip, and then I get a new one!

At the airport. I merely scanned my phone’s English Maze into the kiosk, followed by my driver’s license, and it printed my boarding pass and my baggage tag. The bag tag contains a peel-off claim check and small printed instructions on how to attach the tag to one’s suitcase. The zero-contact agent at the check-in counter didn’t even look up as she took my case and slung it onto the conveyer belt. I was “all set.”

I hadn’t been greeted by anyone. No smiles. No eye contact. No one reassured me that the gate hadn’t changed or the flight was on time. I did the work that used to be done by a pleasant, welcoming agent – with no discount on my sardine seat.

I’m heading out of town tomorrow. Today I received an email requesting that I download the hotel’s app so I can skip check-in – with a smiling, pleasant person – and go straight to my room. My QR code will open my room, the fitness center, the pool and the business center. No human required. I wonder if the QR code will provide housekeeping when the toilet overflows at midnight.

I suppose all this non-human contact makes sense to the businessperson who travels a lot and requires efficiency. I get it.

But I still enjoy connecting with smiling, pleasant employees who like their job. We are working so hard to trim and dehumanize our in-person experiences.

What’s next? Fully employed robots? Maybe they can be manufactured with permanent smiles.

Marcy O’Brien can be reached at Moby.32@ hotmail.com

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