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Front-line retail workers call for the return of COVID-19 pay bump as cases spike

ShutterstockCalls for the return of hazard pay are mounting as workers on the front lines of Canada’s retail industry grow increasingly anxious amid rising COVID-19 cases.

While some companies, including major convenience players in Canada, offered so-called hero pay to essential workers at the outset of the pandemic, most wage premiums ended as the first wave ebbed.

Yet retail workers say morale is lagging as COVID-19 cases spike across much of the country.

Without a pay bump that recognizes the risk of working during a pandemic, they say workers are increasingly calling in sick – leaving fewer staff to enforce rules around mask-wearing and physical distancing.

Some companies have pre-emptively addressed the issue.

Lowe’s Canada said this week it plans to pay a discretionary bonus to all eligible Lowe’s, RONA and Reno-Depot workers.

The Boucherville, Que., home improvement retailer said full-time staff will receive $300 later this month, with $150 for part-time staff. The October bonus is in addition to bonuses paid in March and August, and $2 per hour wage premium paid from April to July.

The Home Depot Canada said it has implemented paid sick leave benefits and is providing workers with an ongoing weekly bonus – $100 for full-time workers and $50 for part-time workers.

Meanwhile, Chapman’s Ice Cream recently made its $2 an hour pandemic pay raise permanent.

Ashley Chapman, vice-president of the Markdale, Ont., company, said the wage top-up was initially conceived as “danger pay” to help get workers back in the door after a two-week shutdown last spring.

But he said given the rising cost of living, making the pay increase permanent for the company’s 750 workers was “the right thing to do.”

“It was an easy decision for a family-owned business to make,” he said, noting that he doesn’t think it’s fair to compare the ice cream maker to larger public companies.

“Everybody who owns shares in our company has the last name Chapman.”

Making the pay bump permanent is something unions across the country are calling for, arguing that the wage premium not only recognizes the ongoing threat of COVID-19 but also pays workers a living wage.

Yet some retailers have argued that they are now operating safely in a “new normal.”

In a June statement, Loblaw Companies Ltd. chairman Galen Weston called it “the right time to end the temporary pay premium we introduced at the beginning of the pandemic.”

“Things have now stabilized in our supermarkets and drugstores,” he said. “After extending the premium multiple times, we are confident our colleagues are operating safely and effectively in a new normal.”

Many workers and unions disagree.

It’s a debate currently playing out in Newfoundland and Labrador, where 11 Loblaws stores under the Dominion banner are shuttered amid an escalating labour dispute.

It’s one of the first collective agreements to be negotiated in Canada since the start of the pandemic, and experts say it could serve as a forerunner for what to expect as other locals go to the bargaining table in the coming months.

Jennifer Green, a front-end cash supervisor at a Dominion in Conception Bay South, said 1,400 grocery store workers have been on strike for more than six weeks in an effort to obtain better wages.

She said without the COVID pay premium, she lives “paycheque to paycheque.”

“A lot of us were really struggling,” Green said. “But when we got the $2 an hour raise, we felt important.”

She said when the pay premium was cancelled, workers felt “sad and upset” and that going into work remained “nerve-racking.”

“It’s been stressful and at times scary,” Green said. “And it’s been really, really busy with online orders and extra cleaning.”

Loblaw did not respond to a request for comment.

Some retail workers have had to deal with aggressive customers, with videos surfacing on social media of shoppers challenging rules around masks and physical distancing.

UFCW Canada spokesman Tim Deelstra said some of the union’s members have been in “disgusting situations.”

“There have been screaming matches,” he said. “Some of our members have been spit on or attacked by members of the public.”

The union is calling for a pay bump to recognize the ongoing efforts and risks taken by front-line workers.

Amanda Nagy, assistant bakery manager at a Fortinos Supermarket in Hamilton – also a Loblaw franchise – said she’s worked throughout the pandemic but is now growing increasingly nervous.

“It’s really overwhelming when we see the number of cases rising every day,” she said. “Then we have anti-maskers come in or people who claim they have a pre-existing condition and don’t wear masks: It’s just a scary environment to be in.”

Nagy said at the outset of the first wave, many people were calling in sick. She said that changed when the pay premium was introduced.

“It’s just good for the morale to feel appreciated,” she said. “Otherwise we’re basically risking our lives at a job where we can barely make ends meet.”


Handling pandemic-related stress



Like it or not, we’re learning to function in pandemic times. But despite the many positive efforts made by retailers to improve the health and safety of their staff, employees are still anxious—and front-line workers like in-store staff are especially so.

To explore the pandemic’s ongoing impact in the workplace, human resources technology leader ADP Canada and Angus Reid launched a series of surveys starting in April that revealed 42% of front-line employees felt pressured to go into work during the pandemic (particularly those aged 18 to 34). Furthermore, only 27% of retail/foodservice/hospitality sector employees said they were getting additional mental health resources.

Andrea Wynter, head of human resources at ADP Canada, says the heightened anxiety doesn’t surprise her. “In addition to uncertainty around the pandemic itself, grocery workers are suddenly an essential service,” she says. “They can’t work at home and they’re exposing themselves and putting their families at risk by providing this essential service every day.”

Wynter predicts that as the labour market starts to return to normal, employees will be approaching potential job opportunities with a different lens. “Did they [companies] put their employees first during COVID-19 and will they have my best interests at heart is something they’ll be thinking about more than ever,” she explains. “Those who did will be seen as top-tier employers, even if they’re paying less.”

Here are some strategies that can help employees feel secure and supported, especially in these unprecedented times.

Even months into the pandemic, staff need and appreciate regular updates, says Wynter. “It’s not only about keeping them informed on the situation and the business, but about how you’re going to protect them and what will happen if they get sick,” she says.

Save-On-Foods established a COVID-19 Task Force, committed to dealing with staff queries. “Management and team members can access either a dedicated COVID-19 telephone line or email address if they have any concerns amid the pandemic,” says Heidi Ferriman, vice-president, people & communications. Not only have staff been regularly consulted on how to best enhance their health and safety, she says they’ve provided valuable feedback as “we worked through updating our existing standard operating procedures and developing new ones.”

In addition to making mental health resources readily available to staff, make talking about mental health a “normal” thing, says Sarah Chamberlin, vice-president marketing and donor experience at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She says managers and other leaders who are more open and honest about their own experiences can help to normalize conversations around mental health. “It’s OK to say, ‘today is a tough day and I’m not liking it,’ and by sharing that experience, your staff will be more willing to share theirs.”

Organizations like CAMH have a wealth of free tools online, including tips on how to talk to front-line staff, including grocery workers.

While these are challenging times for staff in grocery stores, pandemic pressures are hitting head office staff pretty hard too, especially those who have been working from home for months on end. According to the ADP Workplace Insights surveys, 27% of remote workers said they were too busy to take breaks and 24% struggle with managing their mental health.

“This is a new reality [of working] for many and means setting up their homes so they can be productive while creating boundaries between work and life,” says Liz Volk, chief human resources officer at Longo’s. She says the company made sure to survey staff to find out what issues were top of mind and how to make things work better. “Part of that included consistent schedules, getting breaks when they can and taking the time to refresh.”

“Our customers are showing their support by posting signs on our windows, delivering coffee and other treats to the store teams, and making our stores a stop on their vehicle parades in support of essential workers,” says Save-On-Foods’ Ferriman. “We created a page on our internal team member site dedicated to celebrating and sharing these wins and messages of encouragement so that our team members can see how valued they are by their customers and communities.”

At Longo’s, Volk says there is a similar push to share positive feedback from customers coming in via social media and the customer care centre. “Sharing good news helps people stay positive,” she says. The company also provided a financial boost (a $2 hourly increase to all hourly employees and one week of additional pay for those on salary until the end of June) to reward staff commitment and passion. “Showing appreciation of our teams, especially those who have stuck it out on the front lines, has worked out really well,” says Volk.

You don’t have to do it alone. Lean on the expertise of service partners in your communities and encourage staff to do the same. Save-On-Foods’ Ferriman says her company’s employee assistance program has been a godsend during the pandemic, providing staff and their families with health and wellness resources, including 24/7 counselling support. “We recognized through this pandemic the importance of reminding our team members of the tools and benefits that they have access to,” she says. “We also created a new COVID-19 resource page on our team member website giving our teams easy access to any support resources they may need.”

This article appeared in the June/July issue of Canadian Grocer.

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CAMH offers mental health support for front-line retail staff

Online resource hub helps c-store employees cope with stress and anxiety during the pandemic

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 1.32.20 PMAs grocery and c-store workers take on the role of essential service providers during the COVID-19 crisis, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) wants them to know they’re not alone.

CAMH, which is Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, has created an online resource hub for front-line workers, including retail employees and healthcare workers, to help them manage and cope with stress and anxiety arising from the pandemic.

The online tools and resources include a self-assessment survey to gauge stress levels, strategies for coping with stress and anxiety, suggestions for challenging worries and anxious thoughts, and advice on addressing worried family members.

“Specific to the grocer trade, we wanted to recognize that those keeping Canadians fed and stocked with all the things they need—food and medications—have unique needs and are under incredible stress,” says Sarah Chamberlin, vice-president of marketing and donor experience at CAMH Foundation, the charitable fundraising arm of the CAMH hospital. “This is our way of supporting them by speaking directly to them and saying ‘we see you, we thank you, and here is some support.’”

The resources are part of a larger digital and social media campaign, titled “Apart. Not alone,” designed to help all Canadians experiencing mental health challenges during the pandemic.

“There is a great amount of mental health advice out there… but very little of it has been developed by actual mental health experts,” says Chamberlin. “We really felt an obligation to get our resources—which are evidence-based and draw upon experienced clinicians—out there far and wide as we can so people have those world-leading tools.”

Originally published at Canadian Grocer