Unsung heroes: Grocery store workers compensated for being on the front lines during COVID-19

Unsung heroes: Grocery store workers compensated for being on the front lines during COVID-19

In the midst of a global pandemic, a group of unsung heroes is beginning to get recognition for the service they provide day in and day out: operating our grocery stores.

Grocery store workers across the country have been on the front lines during the COVID-19 outbreak, making sure people have access to food and other products, and sanitizing stores around the clock.

It's hard work that hasn't gone unnoticed—many employers are boosting wages and offering benefits.

Sobeys is giving its employees an additional $50 each week, and topping up wages for people who work over 20 hours a week by $2 per hour..

Loblaws is also bolstering hourly wages by 15 per cent, which translates to an additional $2 for most employees in Atlantic Canada.

"Unlike so many businesses across the country right now, our supermarkets and pharmacies are performing well," said company chairman Galen Weston in a release.

"The leaders in our business wanted to make sure that a significant portion of that benefit would go straight into the pockets of the incredible people on the frontline and in our distribution centres."

At both companies, the pay will be retroactive to March 8.

On the front lines

Grocery store workers across the region are learning to adapt to a situation that's changing day by day, including the Fredericton Co-op on Doak Road.

"Everything is different...everything has changed, right from supply to servicing our membership. Cleaning has changed, maintenance has changed, day to day functionality has changed," said store manager Paul King.

CBC/Shane Folwer
CBC/Shane Folwer

New signs are up around the store reminding shoppers to keep their distance. Employees are wearing gloves, and taking breaks every 15 minutes to wash their hands.

And they're doing it all with a smile.

"There's no words that I can say for my team," said King. "They're worth a fortune. We've always had a reputation for being a very clean store, and our employees have topped it."

Kary Pike, one of the 130 employees at the Co-op, said she's still adjusting to being called an 'essential worker.'

"I come because this is what we do. I've been here for over 20 years, so it's a necessity for our members. We come to work every day because we know we have to be there to do what has to be done," she said.

CBC/Shane Fowler
CBC/Shane Fowler

The small, independent store has also expanded its home delivery service, in order to keep people in their homes.

'Busier than Christmas'

John McStay has been working at the Cole Harbour Superstore in Dartmouth, NS for almost four years.

His store has seen a massive increase in customers panic-buying products in the past few weeks.

"It was honestly worse than Christmas or any sort of holiday working at Superstore because we couldn't predict this was gonna happen so we couldn't order enough things ahead of time," he said.

John McStay/Submitted/
John McStay/Submitted/

Online ordering through the PC Express system has also seen a jump at McStay's store.

Typically, his coworkers would put together seven to 10 orders a month. Now, they're up to 40 or 50 a day.

A number of McStay's coworkers have been ordered to stay home from work, given their health or age. He said this has boosted his part-time hours from 12 up to 30 a week.

Given the extra work-load, McStay is thankful his employer is supporting staff.

"Even though it's a small change, it does make a big difference. Hopefully it will go past April 30th. I feel like people kind of realize how essential these services are now," he said.

Taken for granted

While grocery store workers are finally getting some recognition for the essential work they do, unions representing them say the boosts still aren't enough.

"It truly doesn't go to offset what the pay should be. Retail pay should be much higher than [it is]," said Mark Dobson, the Atlantic representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada.

Photo: James Fraser/Submitted
Photo: James Fraser/Submitted

When asked if this boost to wages could be permanent, Dobson wasn't confident it would be.

"I believe that they're doing this as a way to recognize the efforts that are being made by our members and retail workers and warehouse people who are continuing to work during this absolutely unprecedented time. We would love it to continue. I don't think it will," he said.

Dobson hopes some long-lasting change can happen. Now more than ever, government agencies need to be paying attention to the food supply chain in Canada—how essential it is, and how overworked it's getting.

"Now that we're in the midst of a global pandemic and we're relying on them even more than ever before, now we're realizing that they deserved this money and more all along." - Craig Walsh, UFCW Canada

"We've always taken for granted that we'll just go to the store and get the food or get the items we want," he said.

Craig Walsh, a national representative for UFCW Canada, said it's about time grocery store workers get paid what they deserve.

"Now that we're in the midst of a global pandemic and we're relying on them even more than ever before, now we're realizing that they deserved this money and more all along," he said.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

He said many grocery store workers in Atlantic Canada make barely above minimum wage, and an extra $2 per hour can make a big difference.

"Hopefully this will show the folks that do these jobs that they deserve the protections that other industries have taken for granted for years and the wage that goes along with it."