From Tim-bits to kids lit: The contrasting working conditions of the food service and library industries

The following article was originally written as an assignment for Simon Fraser University History Professor Mark Leier’s course “Canadian Labour and Working-Class History.” Students were asked to write about their best and worst work experiences as a way to better understand work and culture. The piece is being reprinted with the permission of the author. – Editors 

There are many factors leading to fulfillment as an employee beyond simply how much money is brought home. I have previously thought about the reasons that one job is better than another. From personal experience I know that union jobs are usually better—however I have also had some good moments at non-union jobs. Being in an accepting and open environment leads to less interpersonal problems, which is good for productivity. When I think of my employment history, two jobs stand out to me. One was horrible and one was amazing: Tim Hortons and the Merritt Public Library in Merritt, BC. 

My experiences at Tim Hortons were less than pleasant. This is a job that has frequent turnover, and individuality is neither wanted nor needed. I made minimum wage, which was $8 at the time. I was used to this type of job because I had worked at Burger King one year earlier. My job at Tim Hortons entailed taking customers’ orders and making their beverages, cleaning the restaurant or washing dishes. 

Once you’ve mastered the skills needed to mop up a spilt drink or make a perfect ‘double-double,’ the job is mundane. It was not emotionally, intellectually, or even physically stimulating work. I used to think of my shifts in periods of 20 minutes. If I could survive for 20 more minutes, I could pay my bills – and before I knew it my shift was over. My mantra became, “I can do anything for 20 minutes.” 

Once I had made some friends at Tim Hortons the days went by a bit faster, as being able to have a quick chat or share a compassionate smile went a long way. But I also have a bit of a personality and sometimes other people really don’t like me. One day I messed up a customer’s drink order, and a co-worker (who had been at Tim Horton’s for years) told me quite seriously that she wanted to kill me. When I told the manager she brought in the franchise owners, who told me to “get over it.” The employee was simply told to apologize to me, but was otherwise not penalized in any way for her behaviour. After that incident I did not feel safe; I didn’t want to come to work anymore. I quit a few weeks later, so fed up at that point that I put my nametag on my manager’s desk and left. 

Disappointingly, my experiences were similar to those in the section in the report about harassment and bullying. I assumed the employee would be fired (or at least suspended) after the incident. Having lost what little faith I had in the fast food industry, I decided to never work in food services again. I need to feel listened to and respected, as I believe all humans do. 

My favourite and most rewarding job was when I taught the Summer Reading Club at the Merritt Public library in the summers of 2008 and 2009. Merritt’s branch manager gave me freedom to decide how I wanted to draw the children to the library and, once they got there, how to keep their attention. The job was very flexible and allowed me a $500 budget to entertain and instill a love of reading in 200 elementary school students. 

There was lots of planning in May and June, including finding materials matching the summer program’s weekly themes. The summer 2008 theme, “Reading All over the Map,” coincided with the 150th anniversary of the British Crown Colony of British Columbia. In keeping with the theme, I developed crafts and activities and selected books on the subjects of mining, Indigenous lore, fishing, and traveling around our beautiful province. 

Each Summer Reading Club event kicked off with a party with games, crafts, and treats to get the children excited. Parents signed their children up for one-hour classes at the library. I taught around 15 classes per week to various age groups. One weekly class included a story, craft, and game or activity tailored to that age and ability. 

My boss, the library’s manager, had so much faith in my ability to do this job. She didn’t give me much direction because she wanted to see what I would come up with on my own. It felt amazing to be given this much responsibility at 19 years old. The library ran as a well-oiled machine and I fit in quite well. My colleagues helped me when I needed it, and I think they enjoyed my youthful presence. The job was through the government and I got paid well. I think being in an environment where the other employees are happy with their jobs is crucial to enjoying your own. 

This job was so fulfilling to me because it allowed me to interact with children on a daily basis. I am very good with children and they seem to be drawn to me. It is so important that children have good interactions and relationships with different types of adults – and I believe it is my duty as an adult to make sure that I foster good experiences with all of the children I meet. It helps that both of my parents are educators and have in turn taught me teaching skills. 

If I could never work again, I’d be happy – although I do get lonely when my kids are at school. In the future I would like to have a job that gives me freedom rather than micro managing me. I want to be around smart people in an engaging environment. I would also like to be around children, because they make me happy and I love interacting with them. I am currently doing my bachelor’s degree in archeology and would eventually like to teach that, along with history and pre-history, to youth in order to instill in them an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.