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Rose Marie Counts Wins “Classification Struggle” over Smile, Dental Work with HR Department of Pennsylvania Convenience Store Sheetz

As readers know, I view Let Me See Your Smile” as [an] Ugly Power Trip and Classification Struggle.” Recently, however, a non-smiler[1] won a victory, so I want to do a happy dance in this post. I’ll also reinforce the notion of “classification struggle,” which I think is an important analytical tool, and muse a bit more on this particular struggle.

Our story begins at Sheetz, a “regional gas-station chain with robust food offerings,” doing business in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. (I believe some of our Pennsylvania friends hotly debate the relative merits of Sheets and its competitor, WaWa.) Sheetz, being three-ring binder driven, like any franchise, has an employee handbook (i.e., an ugly power trip by Human Resources). It reads in relevant part:

“In the event a current employee develops a dental problem that would limit their ability to [2], we cannot permit this situation to go on indefinitely,” it says. “In cases such as this, the employee and store management, to include the District Manager and Employee Relations as necessary, will work to come up with a mutually agreed upon resolution.”

(In fairness to Sheetz, I should mention that Sheetz does have a dental plan, though of course that’s no guarantee of dental care[3].) Sheets fell afoul of Rose Marie Counts. As usual, the Daily Mail tells the story in the headline: “EXCLUSIVE: Domestic violence survivor is left in tears after her boss at convenience store chain Sheetz warns that missing tooth ‘knocked out by ex’ breaks staff ‘smile policy’ which forbids ‘missing, broken or partially-discolored teeth’.” Or in Counts’s own words on her Facebook page:

‘I was asked to come to the office at work. I was nervous having only been with the company for about a month. When I walked in the office the manager had the company policy pulled up to were it talks about employees appearances. I was informed that policy states all Sheetz employees must have and remain with a perfect beautiful warm welcoming smile. If you are an employee with this company and you break a tooth you have 90 days to have it fixed,’

Note that “pleasant, full, and complete” has transmogried into “perfect beautiful warm welcoming,” whether in the manager’s words or Counts’s mind I’m not sure; equally ghastly either way. More:

The conversation starts with her manager appearing to show some understanding over Counts’ position who had a new set of top front teeth and was about to embark on a new set of bottom teeth – a lengthy and painful process in and of itself.

But then:

‘If you can type out a letter – a written plan in detail including a time, duration and cost to get it fixed. I know you said you were going to get some work done,’ the manager asks.

Speaking of ugly power trips. More:

‘I had my top ones done and my appointment for my bottom ones is later this month. My insurance will not pay for me to have temporary teeth so it will be three months for the swelling to go down and then they’ll make them which can take up to six month,’ Counts explains.

I would like to thank the American system of dental care for making this lovely conversation possible:

‘So nine months total?’ the manager replies, showing signs of exasperation. ‘So if you can, and I appreciate you being understanding…’

The manager then deploys the 90-day requirement.

There is a momentary pause before Counts makes the decision before the manager can formally dismiss her.

‘Maybe this isn’t the line if work that I am supposed to be in. I’ve always done health care and wanted something different. I’ve loved it.

‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ she says, her voice breaking.

I pause here to appreciate the great job the manager did: He actually got the employee to quit, and dodged an expensive dental care bullet; clearly on the career path to Assistant To The Regional Manager!

(I focused on the employer/employee interaction here, but the Daily Mail story is well worth a read. Counts, like so many, seems like a good person caught up in the sorts of terrible situations that end up with Rule #2 being invoked. “I’ve always done health care and wanted something different. I’ve loved it.” oddly, none of the coverage characterizes our health care system as “abuse,” but there we are. I don’t want to say “tragic,” or do the “attention must be paid” schtick, because what is a tragedy that happens to millions? Something else I’m not sure we have words for, or even fits in the dramatic, cathartic frame.)

An avalanche of bad publicity for Sheetz ensues, and Sheetz reviews its policy:

Business Insider: Sheetz is reviewing its controversial ‘smile policy’ that prohibits employees from having ‘missing, broken, or badly discolored teeth’

CBS (Pittsburgh, PA): Sheetz to review ‘smile policy,’ which states employees can’t have teeth issues

WTAJ (Altoona, PA): Convenience store chain Sheetz under fire for controversial ‘smile policy’

Penn Live (Harrisburg, PA): Sheetz reviewing ‘smile policy’ which says employees can’t have visible dental issues

WJAC (Johnstown, PA): Sheetz facing scrutiny for its ‘Smile Policy’; company says the policy is ‘under review’

And of course the New York Post: Abuse victim who lost teeth says she was booted from job over Sheetz ‘smile policy’

Sheets then reverses its policy. From the Inquirer, “Sheetz is dropping its controversial ‘smile policy’ after employees spoke up“:

Stephanie Doliveira, Sheetz’s executive vice president of people and culture, said in a statement Wednesday that the policy had been discontinued effective immediately.

“As a family-owned and operated company, nothing is more important than creating an environment that is inclusive and supportive of all of our employees,” Doliveira said. “Recently through employee feedback, we have learned that the smile policy is not aligned with these values from their perspective. We agree.”

Smart move. Smart lawsuit-avoiding move:

A Philadelphia employment lawyer, Eric Meyer, of law firm FisherBroyles, said last month that the policy was “unusual and problematic.”

“Even taking into account the carve-out for people with disabilities … it could have the impact of discriminating against certain protected classes,” Meyer said. “There may be particular protected classes that have less access to a dentist.”

Meanwhile, Counts won’t be back. From Parade:

Counts said she was offered her job back at the company with the promise of fully paid dental work, but she politely turned it down.

Here, however, was the context one employee placed the whole episode in:

“I hate the policy,” a former employee in North Carolina said. This person, who worked for Sheetz for several years before leaving last year, declined to speak on the record for fear of professional consequences.

“It’s really disgusting and kind of , especially when the majority of people you’re employing are going to be lower-income,” the former employee said.

Interesting! We have the notion of class introduced (“classist”), but immediately identified with income: “lower income” as opposed to “working class” (i.e., working for a wage). I don’t know why the connection isn’t made; however, we have “rac,” and “sex,” so perhaps “classist” is a back-formation.

Indeed, teeth are a famous class marker. That said, in my previous post, I didn’t take into account that something I saw as a new and grotesque imposition is something (most) women undergo routinely:

Yech. I really hate the idea that the world is divided into big tippers and compliant waitresses. Yech. Fifty lashes with a wet noodle for lambert on that one.

* * *

The beauty of this episode — besides Counts’s victory for Sheetz workers and workers everywhere — is that it is, just as Bourdieu described it, a “classfication struggle”:

Classifications are a site of conflict…. Our starting point is the simple realization that people are engaged in a constant struggle to insult or classify each other — no need to give further examples — and that the daily struggles over classification are struggles to impose the dominant criterion…. The fact of knowing that the social world is an area of conflict allows us to question the work dof the classifier….

We see above that a demand for the modern, tooth-revealing smile allows classification by (social) class; bad teeth are a mark of being working (low) class. That’s a generalization, but the demand also takes a particular and personal form: To be classified as submissive. I would speculate that these two social functions of the modern smile are essential to ruling class elites, and that’s why they deprecate masks. (We know from Ron Klain’s interview of — really “by” — Caryle’s David Rubenstein that elites care about only two things, with Covid: Vax, and no masks.)

Here, the struggle is even more pointed: The Sheetz employee handbook classified Counts as an unacceptable employee, Counts resisted, Sheetz lost, and the employ handbook was revised to eliminate the offensive classification.

Worth a happy dance!


[1] I don’t hate smiles or smilers! However, the relentless power-tripping of those who use “let me see your smile” as a club to get maskers to risk infection has convinced me that smiling is an intimate matter, best practiced in the privacy of one’s own home. Perhaps, when those of us still taking precautions form our own religion, we can make that one of the tenets. Then we could become a protected class!

[2] Any sociologists in the readership might wish to unpack “pleasant, full, and complete.” What, for example, is the difference between “full” and “complete”? There does seem to be no requirement for sincerity (showing some humanity from HR). If the smile doesn’t reach the eyes, is it “pleasant”? I’d argue no, but many might disagree. A media analyst might begin with this scene from Office Space:

“What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum?”

[3] The filling my last major corporation’s dental chain put in cracked and fell out in two years, though to be fair, if I’d allowed them to upsell me to having all my wisdom teeth pulled they might have done a better job.


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