The ratcheting paranoia of my bosses’ carding policy

It started before I was hired.

My employer had a “Card Under 40” policy, as is fairly common for businesses that sell alcohol and tobacco products. That let them cover their asses against the remote possibility of selling to a 17-year-old who looked thirty-something while not annoying customers who were really obviously of legal age. Not a perfect policy, but people see it often enough to be used to it.

It didn’t work, though. Scuttlebutt has it that two nearby locations were successfully stung by undercover cops, resulting in massive trouble for those cashiers and a certain amount of nervousness on the part of middle management.

I learned later that if a middle manager’s stores get stung X times in Y months, she risks losing her job. She isn’t being threatened with massive fines or imprisonment, like the wage slaves at the counter are, but still, she has something to lose.

So when I was hired, I encountered a “Card All” policy, which means just what it says. One of my more vivid memories from my first week on the counter was explaining this to a 95-year-old man straight from Central Casting – short, scrawny, balding, with a scraggly beard down to his waist and a high, quavering voice that easily conveyed his outrage at the indignity I was inflicting on him.

The signs didn’t help. There was a small, lawyerly sign taped to each register monitor, stating that “this store promotes and enforces a Card All policy” and “we appreciate your support and understanding,” but the corporation-wide default was still Card Under 40 and it showed up on some of the ads we were (and still are) required by corporate fiat to put in the store.

Time passed. Then we started hearing about the override button.

There’s a button on the register, labeled “Over 40,” that lets the cashier bypass the age-verification screen. We still have to use it from time to time, because when the state raised the legal smoking age from 18 to 21-unless-you-were-18-before-the-law-took-effect, corporate’s technical geniuses just changed the legal age as recognized by the registers from 18 to 21 because otherwise they’d have to insert a whole extra line of code with an “or” in it and that’s too much like work.

Some of us were using the Over 40 button more often than others, though, by up to an order of magnitude. The assumption was that they weren’t complying strictly with Card All – maybe they were using common sense despite corporate dictates, or maybe (gasp!) they were selling to someone they weren’t supposed to. So we started hearing about that in posted emails and “Did You Know” notices, including, eventually, a chart breaking down how many times each of us (and each cashier in several other stores) pushed that override button on each day of a certain week, as one of middle management’s periodic subtle reminders that We Are Being Watched.

Time passed. Then we were told to fondle everyone’s cards.

The first reason we were given for this was that state law requires us to have people’s IDs in hand, but I’d already read Maine’s alcohol and tobacco laws front to back and knew this was a lie. The second reason we were given, after I called the first one bullshit in a staff meeting, was that the store manager had encountered a photocopy of an ID and wanted us to feel the lamination on people’s cards to see if they were forgeries. This was probably also bullshit, but I didn’t have a ready way to disprove it, so I just started telling the irate customers that it was “company policy” and commiserating with them about how the window slots in wallets weren’t designed for easy card removal.

More time passed. The we were told to scan everyone’s cards.

We were never actually given a reason for this; my personal theory is that middle management doesn’t trust us to type in birthdates, and/or that they’re gathering customers’ personal information from licenses despite their assurances that no, of course they wouldn’t, that’s illegal, they only keep an anonymized set of birthdates for the purpose of compliance reporting. But now, unless the customer objects or unless they come from the handful of states or provinces whose ID cards are incompatible with the scanner, we scan.

I’ve had a couple of conversations with especially irrational customers about this: “If you object to your license being scanned and your purchase being data-mined, why are you paying with a debit card?” I haven’t pushed hard on this, though, because if they’re rationally protective of their privacy I can understand why.

More time passed.

We still get periodic reminders about that override button and the still-unexplained importance of scanning everyone’s cards. And we got more and more prominent “We Card All” signs, which now outnumber our “Card Under 40” signs by about four to one.

I wonder what they’ll come up with next. If I had to guess, I’d say that they’ll make card scanning mandatory, and people who are leery of it can just suffer. Or maybe we’ll start only accepting Real ID-compliant IDs, or they’ll start enforcing that line in the guidebook about out-of-state customers needing two forms of ID. The possibilities are vast, but one thing’s certain – the carding policy won’t get any better.

Categories: PiecesTags: ,


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