01/17/2015 07:00 EST | Updated 03/19/2015 05:59 EDT

As a Former Employee, I Know Target Will Survive. But Will the Rest of Us?

Tears and hugs filled our Target shifts on Thursday. So did a sense of disbelief. How could they give up so soon? Perhaps we shouldn't have been as surprised as we were.

It was exciting to be part of the much-anticipated launch. I'd been to a Target in Buffalo and it was such a cool store--a place where you could buy not just a can opener -- but a really cool, funky, well-designed can opener. We really did become a "team" as we all worked together to build the store. Hundreds of people lined up on opening day. I felt like I was in the movie Grand Hotel as dozens of us bustled around, preparing for the store to open. There were grumpy sceptics but many more who were looking forward to the Target experience. But the problems became evident very early on. Daily we had to tell customers that we "don't have that product", even though it was advertised in the weekly flyer. We had empty shelves that we were not allowed to fill.

I really like talking to people and I think I was pretty good at that aspect of my job. I had profoundly enjoyable conversations with hundreds of warm, intelligent, funny, and grateful customers or "guests" as we call them at Target. I remember a young mother who brought her three boys to the checkout and took that opportunity to teach them about money and what they could afford to buy with their allowance. That made my day; those were lucky kids. Then there was the wonderful husband who was trying to find comfortable clothing for his cancer-ridden wife. It felt good to help a low-income family find some great bargains.

But retail is a very tough job -- both physically and mentally. It's hard to be on your feet all day. It's hard to be friendly and helpful, everyday, to sometimes rude, disrespectful people. It became harder to absorb the rising frustration of dissatisfied consumers.

And that was the other half of my experience with the public, which was disturbing to say the least. It is hard to be nice to the teen princess, driving her parent's SUV, who obviously does not pick up the clothing in her own room, and thinks she can treat anyone like her servant. It is hard to listen to abuse from shoppers who seemed to think that my colleagues and me were responsible for our corporate policies. It was difficult to understand why some people can't be bothered to walk 20 feet to a garbage bin. It was alarming to watch parents reward a child's bad behaviour with yet another toy. But worst of all was realizing how few people seem to understand the problems that come from income disparity.

Target's mistakes have caused untold hardship for thousands of people across Canada. But the hardship didn't start with its retreat. Minimum wage is appallingly low, and it is extremely difficult to make ends meet. When profits didn't meet expectations, hours were cut, further adding to our financial worries. Many thousands of us were notified a year ago that we were no longer eligible for benefits.

My colleagues at Target have become my friends. Good, hardworking people who live with constant crushing financial anxiety. Like most other big corporations, Target rakes in billions that keep their shareholders happy, but chooses to pay its workers minimum wage. Just fill in another corporate name and it is the same story -- Walmart, McDonald' name it. Ultimately, what I am taking away from my time with Target is the sense that we in the western world are in big trouble. Good jobs are scarce. The kind of work that ex-employees of Target will find will simply be more of the same: hard work at sub-standard wages. Target will survive. It's how the rest of us will get by that really worries me.


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