Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the lives of frontline workers have drastically changed. News coverage of heroic and often beleaguered healthcare workers, emergency responders, and sanitation workers has helped illustrate the toll this pandemic has wrought.
But how has the disease affected the people who work in grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants? Paul Fombelle, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern, considers these employees the “forgotten front line,” and seeks to learn more about how their jobs and lives have changed over the last six months.
He and researchers from the University of Alabama and Utah State University recently published an editorial in the Journal of Service Research that urges their colleagues across the United States to consider the effects of the pandemic on frontline workers outside of the healthcare industries.
“There’s been so much change and uncertainty for these people who’ve been keeping our society running,” Fombelle says. “In many cases, their world has turned upside down and yet they’re still expected to show up to work amid so much uncertainty.”
The researchers collected stories from 100 frontline employees in the fields of retail, hospitality, and personal service, as well as 100 stories from consumers. They asked the employees about their overall morale, their interactions with customers, and the transformational change that has taken place in their jobs—and used this anecdotal evidence to show how fertile the ground is for research in these areas.
“This is a call to action in the marketing field and the broader research field,” Fombelle says. “We have a vested interest to understand how their lives have changed and an obligation to make sure they’re cared for.”
From the stories they collected, the researchers found that employees had mixed reactions to questions about their overall morale. Some reported heightened stress and fear over contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, while some reported gratitude that they were able to work during a period when millions of people were unemployed.
The anecdotes also revealed that employees often found themselves in the new (and unwelcome) position of enforcing public health guidelines among customers who weren’t wearing masks or keeping an appropriate distance from employees or other customers.
“What are employees supposed to do when customers aren’t following the guidelines, or when they’re outraged at being asked to?” Fombelle wonders.
Some of the employees Fombelle and his colleagues surveyed recounted upsetting interactions with customers who were aggressive when the employees attempted to enforce new rules such as mask policies or temporary limits on groceries.
Frontline employees “are the face for many organizations and as such endured the brunt force of negative emotion and behaviors from consumers,” the researchers write in the editorial. “We found that while the majority of consumers were well behaved, understanding, and caring in light of the less-than-ideal circumstances, some consumers acted out in deviant ways toward the [frontline employees].”
The researchers argue that studying the long-term effects of such aggression will be critical to understanding the changing nature of customer service jobs. They also posit that the pandemic accelerated the implementation of technology in many retail sectors—think of the surge of self-checkout lines at the grocery store, or contactless payment options in the food industry.
Such technology has changed the daily jobs of many frontline employees, Fombelle says. For example, people who typically worked at a checkout lane in a grocery store may have found themselves stocking shelves instead.
“What kind of structure do they have in this new role?” Fombelle asks.
Finally, the researchers urge their colleagues to consider how changes to reservation and booking protocols may end up affecting employees in service industries.
As more and more service providers and retail establishments require a reservation to enter, fewer walk-in customers may mean lower wages for some employees, the researchers posit.
The discoveries from research into any of these topics could lead to important changes in workplace structure and protections for the “forgotten front line,” Fombelle says.
“The question is: How can we, as researchers, dig deeper to enhance the positive changes and help reduce the struggles?”