Grocery staff say they're working with constant 'degree of fear' over health, wages during pandemic

When Charlie Cook is working a shift at Organic Acres Market on Vancouver's Main Street, it feels like the shoppers know to keep their distance from each other but don't always extend the same courtesy to staff.

Cook, who uses the pronoun they, is one of thousands of essential grocery store workers across the province helping provide people with the products they need during a pandemic, and trying to do so as safely as possible.

That can often be a challenge, according to Cook and other grocery workers.

Cook said the size of the small neighbourhood store they work in makes it hard to practise physical distancing, and while the shop has hand sanitizer for shoppers, there is no division at the register between customers and clerks — and they say some shoppers are coming too close for comfort.

"At the moment it feels like staying protected is just staying on top of handwashing and sanitizing everything, but it is something that disturbs me," Cook told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

Instagram/Organic Acres Market

Tanya, a cashier at a large grocery store in the Vancouver area, said customers have been very polite for the most part, but she has been in a few situations lately where people have not respected in-store limits on products or physical distancing rules.

"There some ... that are self-entitled ... and don't care to have limits imposed on them and who can get rude and abusive, and yell at us, and when we don't do anything, they yell at the supervisors," said Tanya, whose real name CBC has agreed not to use.

"I've actually had to tell people to back off, please back off, get out of my space. It does happen more than I like."

At the Nesters Market in the city's Gastown neighbourhood, cashiers have Plexiglass shields between themselves and shoppers. Even then, employees are living with "a degree of fear" constantly, store manager Mike Pare told Quinn.

He said some staff have decided to reduce their hours, something that management fully understands and supports.

As well as keeping on top of safety measures, Pare said staff are under extra stress just with making sure shelves are stocked because the store is much busier than normal.

"We are working extra hard for you," he said.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Kim Novak, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1518, said she has spoken to many members who are "overwhelmed and shocked about suddenly being as critical a service to the public as they are."

She said that breeds both pride and fear.

"Their health depends on every person walking through those doors," said Novak, stressing the need for the public to keep at least two metres apart and stay at home if they're displaying any symptoms of COVID-19.

Despite the pressures of the job at this time, Pare said there are still new hires walking in the doors, many of whom have been laid off from the restaurant industry and are in need of paycheque.

For Cook, that paycheque isn't quite large enough. They said covering their bills on a grocery worker wage was challenging before the pandemic, and the current situation is amplifying that.

"I make a wage that in an expensive city like Vancouver isn't livable, so it is quite different to be working under these new pressures and be struggling to pay bills sometimes," said Cook.

Four major Canadian grocery chains have brought in wage increases for employees during the coronavirus crisis. Novak said the union is encouraging all retailers to move in that direction.

"Whether you are a smaller chain or a larger one, whatever can be done to increase compensation to provide more paid leave for people who are off sick, that's really important," said Novak.

The provincial health ministry has created strict guidelines for grocery stores to take to ensure the safety of staff and customers.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.