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Sitting or Standing Cashiers (Continued)

Yesterday's column about the D.C. Chevy Chase woman who was disturbed that supermarket cashiers have to stand all day -- and decided to do something about it -- drew a huge response from readers, with some arguing that the policy American supermarkets hew to is a classic example of uncaring employers, and others contending that the job really can't be done while the worker is sitting.

Deana Jordan Sullivan's solution was to buy a bunch of stools at Ikea and deliver them to her neighborhood Safeway, but Safeway has declined to give the stools to the cashiers, saying that there's simply not enough space at the checkstands. The most interesting part of the story to me was the idea that this policy is driven by cultural expectations, that, as the Safeway spokesman put it, Americans don't really believe someone is working if they're sitting down.

Readers had lots to say:

A cashier at a high-volume store called the "do-gooder" gesture "presumptuous. I personally would not want stools in the cash register area because they get in the way. We work shifts and we get breaks. We trade off standing and actually, standing for hours is not all that hard to do. I am used to it."

But a longtime Safeway employee wrote with the opposite view:

"I spent the majority of my first 25 years as a Cashier. I could not be more ecstatic that you wrote your article! During my time as a Cashier, I would frequently have to visit a Chiropractor for back adjustments. I would often tell my Manager's that I work that in a space designed for 5'2" people and I am 6'3" and without a stool, I am running up the cost of Health Care for my company. Safeway's corporate response was to eventually limit our annual Chiropractic visits! Fortunately for me, I now have a new position in Safeway that allows me movement. I have not visited a Chiropractor for over four years! Corporate Management should give the go ahead to stools to save even more on Health Care. As for Deana Jordan Sullivan, tell her thank you ever so much for caring and she is a hero in my eyes!"

Bob Fustero, a longtime Giant employee who ran as an independent for Montgomery County Executive last fall, voiced similar frustration with management: The company view was that workers should be standing, so when cashiers had no customers, they were instructed "to wipe down the register, load bags, organize bags (remember paper bags used to come in a variety of sizes) and overall, look busy. The cashiers eventually learned that even if there was nothing to do, at least look busy, or management would find something else for you to do."

The contrast between European markets, where cashiers usually sit, and American ones stood out to many readers. A Maryland man noted that the Aldi grocery chain, which is based in Europe, allows its American cashiers to sit on stools.

But several readers said it's important to note that while cashiers in European markets do have stools and do their work sitting or perching, their job is somewhat different from their American counterparts. As my friend Bob put it, "in many of the large European chains, it's the customer, not the clerk, who does the bagging. So the movements required by the job are different than in the US. This may be one reason stools are more common abroad."

A reader in Alexandria noticed that the American rule that grocery cashiers should stand does have the occasional exception, such as a cashier he saw sitting at the checkstand in the Wegmans near the Fairfax County Government Center. "There were about 18 checkout counters, and one of them was lower then the others: The cashier was sitting--and only occasionally getting up. And the cashier was bagging by using a carousel located under the counter. The carousel was similar to the one used in the Wal-Mart stores that is located on top of the counter.
Our thought was this might have been an accommodation for the employee, and a thoughtful one at that."

Indeed, the Safeway spokesman told me that exceptions are occasionally made for workers with documented disabilities. Which again raises the larger question: If it works for those exceptional cases, why not make it the policy?

Finally, Montgomery County community organizer Alisa Glassman added another fascinating question about the work lives of cashiers:

"I had often wondered though about the cash register bottom (where the money is) hitting the workers each time the machines open to make change. I can't imagine being at a job where I'm hit throughout the day." I've always wondered about that--why are cash registers designed to smack the operator in the gut with each transaction?

By Marc Fisher |  January 22, 2007; 7:28 AM ET
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Comments

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Now that I've thought about it, I think I've only seen cafeteria cashiers sitting down. And they usually don't have much to do except look over your tray and ring you up. Every other cashier (or store clerk at register) seems to also be baggers, retrievers, or just look busy like you said.

Posted by: tallbear | January 22, 2007 8:40 AM

I worked in a grocery store for over a year as a bagger and clerk- bouncing from cashier to cashier and many had their own opinions about using stools. Most would have welcomed the option. It would not have interfered with their ability to do the job or wipe down the counter- they would have simply gotten up as needed. There is no reason to make someone stand all day for no reason. You do not stand hunched over your computer at work in your cube, do you?

Posted by: Chris | January 22, 2007 8:54 AM

The Wegmans's cashier is sitting because they are at a handicap check-out. It is not for their benefit but rather that of the handicap customer who is lower. I agree if that check out works then why not do it for others.

Posted by: Sharon | January 22, 2007 9:00 AM

In Europe, at many of the grocery stores, the cashiers are sitting. You bag your own groceries, so all they do is ring up and take your money. For the first minute or so I thought it was weird but then I thought that it made sense.

Posted by: Dawn | January 22, 2007 9:08 AM

In Europe, at many of the grocery stores, the cashiers are sitting. You bag your own groceries, so all they do is ring up and take your money. For the first minute or so I thought it was weird but then I thought that it made sense.

Posted by: Dawn | January 22, 2007 9:09 AM

Only in DC would this rise to the point where action is taken and on-line organizing takes place from someone who is allegedly a busy executive.

Posted by: Stick | January 22, 2007 9:27 AM

I watch a show on the Discovery Channel called "Dirty Jobs". I wonder how much they would laught if someone suggested they document the travails of a grocery store cashier.

My father is a manager at a factory. My mom recently bought him a pedometer. He reckons he walks about 7 miles per day, and when he is not walking, he is standing anyway. I would like to petition that we supply him with something nice from The Scooter Store.

Posted by: joe | January 22, 2007 9:51 AM

Marc, are the cashiers unionized? Do the unions have a .. um ... stance on the issue?

Posted by: Tom T. | January 22, 2007 9:56 AM

Interesting topic. What I would like to see is a little more cleaning around the check-out areas. Actually, the counters need to be sterilized whenever something leaks fluids all over the place.

We hear lots about our kitchens and the bacteria there - raw chicken around the salad, that kind of thing. But we don't hear much about the chicken packages leaking onto the counters at the checkout lines and us poor smucks putting the kids packages of cookies or breakfast cereals into that crud. Talk about bacteria transfer.

Posted by: SoMD | January 22, 2007 10:16 AM

I work in a department store and not only do we have to stand all day, our register areas do not have relief mats and we are not allowed to wear sneakers. I have to say that it's hard on my feet and the first few weeks I was working there I was sore and aching when I got home. My body has adjusted somewhat, but I have to say that the European way of doing things seems to make more sense and I wonder that a company that makes millions of dollars a year can't be bothered to even provide relief mats.

Posted by: Margaret D. | January 22, 2007 10:20 AM

Marc - I work at Trader Joe's. We stand at the register, but we also rotate around to other sections of the store. We have thick rubber mats to stand on, we get good ergonomic training. The cash drawer does come out a waist level, but it's very soft -- and the good thing is, you can give a hip shimmy to knock it back in while you're handing the customer his/her receipt & change. Standing at a register is less tiring on the body than wheeling cases of groceries around and stocking the shelves - but more tiring mentally.

Posted by: Anon | January 22, 2007 10:27 AM

Was I the only one who read that column and thought of George buying the chair for the security guard on "Seinfeld"?

Posted by: Miles | January 22, 2007 10:30 AM

And, of course, Giant is a European owned company????

Posted by: mikes | January 22, 2007 10:43 AM

I was shocked to learn that in 2007 in America people are required to stand on their feet at work! How can this be?

Are the cashiers paid to stand on their feet?

Is it unhealthy to stand on your feet for extended periods, or might this improve muscle tone and coordination?

Do they take this job voluntarily? Or are they forced into this against their wills?

Before they take the job, does the company explain that they will have to stand on their feet? If they don't like this, can they leave the job or are they forced to remain at their posts like a soldier in Iraq?

Something should be done about this travesty.

Posted by: KK | January 22, 2007 11:00 AM

I just groaned when I read about this woman. She and her "genius kid" (All Chevy Chase kids are you know. They're even better than the Lake Wobegon kids, and of course their parents should know since they only listen to NPR when their not all in Starbucks.) I've felt sorry for the manager of the Chevy Chase Safeway before now, just because of the cramped space and having to deal with Chevy Chase customers. Now, I really feel sorry for the manager. Having to deal with the "nanny-state" customer who goes out on her own and buys some flimsy IKEA stools to crowd up his store even more. Doesn't she even get the idea that IF a store was going to add stools, they would need to fit in the space and they would need to be of commercial/industrial quality to handle the level of use without falling apart and causing more problems.
I bet this woman is also in complaining about them not having enough products in stock, but then her stools are taking up space.

Posted by: Not a Fisher fan | January 22, 2007 11:51 AM

I was a cashier in a supermarket for 3 years back when I was a teenager, and we were explicitly forbidden to sit down while we were working, whether we had a customer or not. There were many days when my legs and back ached by the time my shift was over. Now I get bad back pain after only a short time standing, so I would never be able to take a job like that again. Incidently I was never hit by an opening cash drawer -- they don't open with that much force.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 22, 2007 12:07 PM

I've about gotten to the point where I'd just as soon bag my own groceries. At best the cashiers only know not to put something fragile in with something heavy, but that's about it -- most of them just throw things in randomly, and the flimsy plastic bags haven't helped (paper bags were much better).

Posted by: Cosmo | January 22, 2007 12:17 PM

The Safeway discussed in Marc's column has awful customer service. I avoid shopping there even though it is close to my home.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 22, 2007 12:24 PM

Grocery & retail stores should provide stools to cashiers. These jobs are not highpaying or very rewarding - let's give these folks a break.

Posted by: Arlington | January 22, 2007 12:24 PM

In England (and maybe other places), you also have to put some change into a machine to get a grocery cart (trolley as they call them) to use! You get the money back when you return your cart to the rack. It prevents carts from ending up all over the place (and running into cars)! I'm sure it cuts down on cart replacement, too.

Posted by: Columbia, MD | January 22, 2007 12:35 PM

One reason I prefer supermarket cashiers standing is simple respect - they're at eye-level with the customer. Perhaps this is part of the raison d'etre for the handicapped lanes at Wegman's being lower. That lane is also wider than the other lanes at Wegman's. So, in exchange for worker comfort/safety, Wegman's would have to increase operating costs and reduce customer service (fewer lanes would be available). As with most things in business, dollars and convenience drive the final decision.

Posted by: Not sympathetic | January 22, 2007 12:53 PM

Arlington,

"These jobs are not highpaying or very rewarding - let's give these folks a break."

Really? How much do they pay, and what are their fringe benefits?

These are unionized occupations, so you can be sure that the people are better paid than workers outside with comparable educations and skills. Why can't they work the way the company wants them to work -- like the rest of us?

Posted by: KK | January 22, 2007 1:05 PM

With 3 years of experience I'm at $15/hour, company-paid retirement account, excellent low-deductible health care, employee discount, full fringe benefits. No union.

Posted by: Anon | January 22, 2007 1:45 PM

What freakin' busybodies! Safeway already has an employee union and government occupational rules to work with. Suddenly everyone with a mouth knows what works best in a checkout line? Take the stools back to IKEA, get your money back, and get on with your life.

Posted by: CPS | January 22, 2007 2:25 PM

CEO's sit on their butts all day long and get paid alot of $$$$ for not working according to our "cultural expectation".

I remember working a factory job going through college and during the day shift when the white shirts were around, everyone had to stand up and watch their machine even though you could do just as good a job sitting.

Posted by: Me | January 22, 2007 2:44 PM

You can think better on your feet. When you sit you fall aslee

Posted by: Stick | January 22, 2007 2:50 PM

No good deed goes unpunished

Posted by: Anonymous | January 22, 2007 3:16 PM

KK, you are educated enough to have a job? Wow. I hope you don't work in a negotiating environment.

Posted by: Maryland | January 22, 2007 9:03 PM

Here's a crazy thought - if you don't want to stand up all day, don't apply for a job that requires you to stand up all day. Every job has it's drawbacks and until we all move to some far off land with gumdrop mountains and candy flowers, we're just going to have to deal with it.

Posted by: Arlington | January 23, 2007 11:58 AM

There's a big difference between standing all day in one place, and being on your feet all day but able to move around. Also, not all employees that work register are unionized. When I worked at Borders, I was non-union, earning $7.75 an hour, no benefits because I was classified as a seasonal employee, though with required breaks at least I could sit for 5 minutes every 2 hours, and had an hour for lunch.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 24, 2007 10:26 AM

fyi at Shoppers they do NOT make seating allowances for pregnant women. They must stand with everyone else.

Posted by: slinkyface | January 24, 2007 12:18 PM

Postal Service sorting clerks stand for eight to ten hours a shift -- overtime is common -- but on mats, and can lean back on a device like the back of a stool without a seat. Standing is said to promote alertness and increase accuracy, which is constantly tested. The back-bar takes up a bit of room and could use a re-design, but why not try it for cashiers?

Posted by: Mike | January 24, 2007 4:41 PM

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