Not All Fun and Games: Working at the CNE

Wednesday Journal Entry, Week 18

Karina Lafayette – August 24th 2022

Every year for eighteen days, Torontonians flock to the CNE to play games, go on rides, eat cotton candy, get caricatures done, and win cool prizes. While there, people in attendance get to laugh, have fun, and forget their worries for at least a few hours, but for the staff, it’s anything but.

While looking for extra work in the summer, I came across an ad that seemed like the ideal role. The chance to be a part of the team in charge of the rides and games at the Canadian National Exhibition, also known as the Ex or CNE for short. Honestly, the reason I applied is because it seemed like easy money, and also because I wanted the opportunity to be a part of something I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford at this point in my life.

Getting hired was the easy part. We all got an email from a company called Astro Amusements with a time and date of recruitment. I arrived around 12:50pm, only needing ID, and their recruitment hours were said to be from 10am to 1pm. Almost sweating and worried about not getting chosen, to my surprise, there were five other people still waiting, which meant I had a chance. One of their team members, I assumed a manager, came to get us to meet for a group interview at a trailer next to BMO Stadium. The person in charge of the hiring process came up to each one of us and asked for our names and to quickly describe our personalities. She was basically standoffish and unapproachable beyond that. I already found this to be a red flag. How can you know right off the bat whether someone is qualified? I let it slide for now and figured it’s likely they’re used to working with young people, since almost everyone there seemed to be in their late teens and early twenties. And well, I’m thirty, not that you can tell.

We had a training day the following week. There was no specified time period so I brought a lunch just in case. Each person was shown a brief introduction of the ride or booth they would be at, and was then told to go get their all-access badge to start working a few days later. In the contract, it was mentioned that $200 is to be deducted from your pay for the required uniform, which seems like an easy way to not have to pay people all their hours. Also, you have to disclose whether you have cash on you. You’re expected to be available everyday, for a maximum of twelve hour shifts and break times can change accordingly. If anyone is suspected of stealing, management has the right to do a pat down, similar to what’s normally done at airport security. I’ve worked many jobs where cash handling was necessary, and never heard of this.

Our first day on the job was during the opening of the Ex on August 19th. It felt a bit intimidating to be surrounded by so many people at a job that we essentially have no experience with, like being thrown to the wolves. Luckily, most of the positions are fairly easy. I was handpicked to work at the pony trailer, which made me literally want to roll my eyes at first. I was going to ask to be switched at any other booth instead, but with management being so unfriendly, why bother? Instead of having a whole schedule, we were only given the first few shifts, with the rest of the schedule to be put together later and sent… via text.

Another thing that seemed questionable was the fact that earlier this month, safety inspectors responsible for looking at the rides and more went on strike, meaning guest safety was being put at risk. Mayor John Tory assured the event would still be a success, but ask anyone from Toronto, they’ll assure Tory is known for only caring about profit, not people.

The first shift was the most exciting. Basically my job was to handle cash on bets that guests were making anytime another staff member would spin the wheel. Depending on the color and number the wheel lands on, if they pick the winning color, the number it falls on is how their money gets multiplied. If the guests lose, then you take their money away. And to be honest, if it wasn’t for the smiles and looks on the guests faces, I would’ve probably left right after that. Once the shift was over, all of the staff had to wait in line for almost twenty minutes just to sign out, because apparently Astro can’t be bothered with a scanner that allows people to swipe their card before and after a shift, like what other companies have. My feet were in so much pain, that I was almost tempted to go home without signing out at all.

By the second day, my supervisor kept asking when I would step up to the mic to spin the wheel. Being no Vannah White, I felt more at ease interacting with guests one-on-one and giving the occasional nod or smile. “You know on training day, they said everyone has to go on the mic at least once.” This made me annoyed, it felt like we were in school, where students get called out for not reading along with the rest of the class. From my perspective, in order to put on a great game, it should be the most outgoing staff members on the mic. You can tell the difference between those who love to talk and those who don’t, and I’m pretty sure the outgoing types bring more sales. I wasn’t trying to be immature when admitting I felt uncomfortable, I just know what my strengths are and like sticking to them. It only seemed logical. I’m an INFJ.

My supervisor then came back a few minutes later and apologized. It was obvious she was being pressured by management, because even she didn’t seem to care. She then agreed I could try and be on the mic another day when it was more quiet. Boy, how this made me want to dig my heels even more. Later into the evening, a man came up and put a dollar on a color. When the color wasn’t chosen, he refused to let me take the dollar. I got confused, and realized he was wearing an Astro Amusements hat, which meant that he worked with us. Funny, because we were given the impression that staff aren’t allowed a good time.

At this point, I was feeling so tired that that brief interaction almost made me cry. It seemed silly to feel that way, but watching everyone else laugh and have so much fun, while you’re just wanting to get the shift over with, was extremely frustrating. Only the second day into a two week event, and already I was feigning enthusiasm, catching a glimpse at people’s watches or phones to keep track of time. Since oh yeah, cellphones weren’t allowed either. As if that isn’t enough, I only got one break for that shift. Work isn’t supposed to always be fun, but it shouldn’t be like this.

During my first year in Toronto, I worked as concessions at the Toronto International Film Festival. The hours were set, you had proper training even though it was during actual shifts, and by a few days in, everyone was placed according to their skills. If a staff member was more outgoing, they were the ones to hand out snacks or sell tickets. If they were more introverted, they were either assigned to work in the theaters or to make the actual popcorn. Even though I felt a bit exhausted once a shift would finish, I didn’t want the position to end. To get hired, I was interviewed with an agency like at any other job interview, about a few weeks before TIFF started, rather than at the very last minute. When you got there, you could tell that the people on board loved movies and had their reasons for showing up.

On Sunday, the idea of going back to work at the CNE made me want to stay in bed, sore swollen feet aside. Luckily, I had the day off. Weighing the pros and cons about whether I should honor the rest of my position, I looked online to see if I was the only one who felt this way, because I didn’t want to gaslight myself for a whole two weeks. All this didn’t seem to be worth minimum wage. As it turns out, many people who worked for Astro Amusements in the past had a similar experience, some even complaining about pay discrepancies, and how ridiculous it is to have to pay for your own uniform, which is basically a simple T-shirt. Even TIFF didn’t expect us to pay for their uniform. Really, I thought this job was going to be fun. I thought it would be a gentle way to reintroduce myself back into the work force after taking needed time off to figure out my writing career and direction in life. It was obvious that looking elsewhere was the best choice, so I sent them an email stating that I wouldn’t go back.

I also know that some people reading this will say I should be grateful to have any job in this economy, and that I’m privileged, but in all honesty, I’ve struggled a lot. So much that I only spend on the bare minimum and have worked hours on my writing and astrology readings while working other positions in between. On the surface my situation looks easy, but that’s only because it’s none of your business. This doesn’t mean I should put up with rude behavior or having to stand for unreasonable hours underpaid. No one should.

And don’t get me wrong, the part where we see guests get excited about winning money at the pony trailer, even though it’s hardly a casino payout, definitely made me happy, especially since we couldn’t gather for almost two years. However, being expected to show up for management that’s unwilling to even pretend to have gratitude for your presence, simply doesn’t make it worth it in the long run.

Beyond that, I don’t think I’d attend the CNE again as a paying guest until they have different organizers, but this is what capitalism looks like- having fun at other people’s expense. It’s also worth noting that the position I had is clearly more geared toward younger people, which explains why they’re able to get away with so much to begin with; When you’re young, you don’t have clear boundaries, let alone know how you’re supposed to be treated in a work setting. Astro Amusements is also recognized in Ontario for providing services with Winter Wonderland and Screemers, so I know what events to avoid from now on. All this job really made me do is get a stronger urge to focus on my goals, and to re-align myself with roles that fit where I’m at, right here, right now. Having to suffer for someone else’s good time, just isn’t it.

To check out my books, social media and more, scroll to the menu, where you can also get a reading. And be sure to watch my new short documentary series on the Saturn Return! If you support my work, consider buying me a coffee.

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