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Dollarama workers call for resumption of pay raise amid the pandemic

Dollarama workers in Montreal are demanding higher wages and better working conditions after the retailer ended its temporary coronavirus pay boost earlier this month.

Employees at Dollarama stores received a 10 per cent wage increase at the end of March while warehouse workers saw a $3 raise for employees who typically start near minimum wage, which in Quebec is $13.10.

Dollarama and several other retailers launched their so-called pandemic pay programs as COVID-19 began to spread throughout Canada, triggering unprecedented working conditions amid a shopping frenzy that left some store shelves bare as companies scrambled to restock products ranging from flour to paper towels.

The Montreal-based retailer stopped the pay premiums on Aug. 2 after extending them for a month and a half beyond the expected end date.

Despite Dollarama’s efforts to ramp up health measures amid the pandemic, it is not possible to maintain physical distancing inside its Montreal warehouse, said organizers at a demonstration near the facility in Montreal on Thursday afternoon. Hundreds of employees clock in and out at the same time and work on the same floor, they said.

Gaurav Sharma, who works as a pallet builder in the warehouse, described conditions as “the very worst” due to a lack of onsite medical resources and inconsistent adherence to health measures such as masks and distancing.

“Some people are putting on masks, some people are not putting on masks,” said Sharma, 40.

“It’s very hard work, and the salary is very low,” he said of his job, which involves lifting and stacking boxes.

Sharma, who lives with his wife, sister and father, said he is concerned about the precariousness of both his health and income, particularly for his family.

“He has a lot of medical problems,” Sharma said of his 72-year-old dad. “My father and my sister are dependent on me.”

The distribution centre is staffed primarily by immigrants and asylum seekers employed through temporary placement agencies, leaving already vulnerable workers in a less secure position, said organizers with the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal.

Dollarama said it continues to adhere to strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols across its operations, having developed them in collaboration with government agencies at the outset of the pandemic.

“The repeatedly recycled claims being made by these third parties regarding Dollarama’s working conditions and response to the pandemic are 100 per cent false and unfounded,” spokeswoman Lyla Radmanovich wrote in an email.

“Pay scales for our workforce continue to be competitive _ both in stores and in our logistics chain _ and have evolved throughout the course of the pandemic, dictated by market conditions.”

Canada’s three major grocers _ Loblaw Companies Ltd., Metro Inc, and Empire Co. Ltd. _ also halted their temporary pandemic pay bonuses simultaneously in mid-June.

The news sparked a backlash, with unions representing some of the workers pushing back against the decision saying the pandemic was not over. Unifor National called for the increased pay to be made permanent.

A parliamentary committee hearing last month saw executives from the three grocery chains face questions over their cancellation of the $2-per-hour wage increase, which was implemented in March.

The grocers have said they stopped the programs as the COVID-19 situation stabilized at their stores and distribution centres. Loblaw also indicated it was no longer benefiting financially from the pandemic despite increased sales as it invested hundreds of millions of dollars into safety measures.

Dollarama reported a year-over-year sales boost of two per cent to $844.8 million and a nearly 17 per cent drop in net earnings to $86.1 million in the quarter ended June 30.

“$86.1 million in profit,” read one attendee’s sign at the demonstration Thursday afternoon, “but nothing for workers.”

About 50 protestors attended the event, calling for permanent restoration of the pandemic pay and safer working conditions between chants of “solidarity.”


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Grocers defend pandemic pay cut decisions as independently made despite emails, calls

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Executives from three of Canada’s largest grocery chains were in communication before launching and ending temporary wage increases for grocery store workers during COVID-19, but maintain their decisions were not co-ordinated.

Metro Inc. was aware of Loblaw Companies Ltd.’s decision to stop its so-called pandemic pay program before it made a similar decision, chief executive Eric La Fleche told the House of Commons standing committee on industry, science and technology Friday.

La Fleche said that a Metro competitor’s move was one of several influencing factors in its decision-making process.

He joined the Loblaw president and Empire Co. Ltd. chief executive at a two-hour session about why they stopped paying a temporary wage bump to employees as of June 13.

“Let me be absolutely clear, we did not co-ordinate our decisions,” said Michael Medline, Empire CEO, in his opening statement before the committee. Medline, whose company owns the Sobeys and Safeway brands, was the first of the trio to give his opening remarks.

“The decision was our own.”

Loblaw president Sarah Davis echoed the sentiment, but noted she sent a “courtesy email” to both competitors, as well as Walmart and Save-On-Foods, on June 11. The latter two did not appear at the hearing.

The email notified competitors of Loblaw’s decision to end its pandemic pay program on June 13. The company had already informed its roughly 200,000 employees, she said, and recognized “the news would be public immediately.”

La Fleche said in later questioning that he was aware of the email when Metro made its decision to end its bonus pay program on the same day.

“We made our own decision based on the information we had, which included that last piece of information, yes,” he said.

He called it “one factor among others” contributing to its decision. Other factors included the broader economic reopening, other retailers starting to open their doors, lower business volumes and a gradual return to more normal conditions.

Empire had not received Davis’s email when the company made its decision to terminate the extra wages, said Medline, but had heard through the grapevine that Loblaw was considering doing so.

Davis received a reply to her June 11 email, and said she would provide copies of the original and all answers to the committee.

She also sent a courtesy email to competitors when Loblaw decided to begin its extra pay program. Davis said she doesn’t recall sending courtesy emails to competitors on other topics, including executive compensation.

In addition to receiving the email, La Fleche said he made several phone calls to competitors in May and June to ask whether they planned to extend their bonus pay programs or end them on previously announced dates.

“In perfect compliance with The Competition Act, I asked my counterparts their intentions regarding whether or not they would maintain the temporary bonus,” he said, in a translation from French, during his opening remarks.

In each case, competitors, including Medline from Empire and Davis from Loblaw, told him they had not yet decided.

“Whatever the case, those calls were made in a decisional process that was much larger and … did not inform our decisions.”

When asked why he made the phone calls, La Fleche answered he “wanted as much information as I could have in order to make a best decision for our company, our employees at the right time.”

He said he would “absolutely not” characterize those conversations as trying to obtain a tacit agreement on wages.

Those who sent emails and made phone calls said they consulted with company counsel before doing so and lawyers were present during at least one phone discussion.

The appearance was a chance for the executives to admit they were wrong to end the pay increases, said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, a private sector union.

“What we got instead was highly paid grocery executives insisting they did not collude, and then going on to say _ remarkably _ virtually the same thing over and over again,” he said in a statement.

“The executives all admitted to exchanging ‘courtesy emails’ and ‘courtesy calls’ on pandemic pay, and yet insist there was no collusion. I look forward to the committee’s ruling on that.”

Unifor has been critical of retailers ending temporary wage increases while the pandemic continues and has called for the pay bump to be permanent.

Convenience giant Alimentation Couche-Tard also ended its pandemic pay for retail staff.

With files from Michelle Warren



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Grocery workers should be properly paid during pandemic, Trudeau says

Grocery store employees who continued to work during the COVID-19 pandemic are “heroes” and should be properly compensated, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday.

Trudeau’s remarks came about a week after Canada’s three major grocers scrapped so-called pandemic wage premiums for their staff.

“The people who step up in the midst of the most serious times to ensure that Canadians can still put food on the table, that they can get deliveries they need, that shelves are stocked, that Canadian continue to be safe and fed are heroes of this pandemic every bit as much as our front-line health workers and emergency responders,” he said at a news conference in Chelsea, Que., after being asked for his reaction to the pay clawback.

Loblaw Companies Ltd., Metro Inc. and Empire Co. announced last week they would stop paying an hourly premium to store workers starting June 13.

Loblaw and Metro both had been paying workers an extra $2 an hour since March 8, while Empire offered a weekly bonus to all employees and a $2 hourly wage bump to those working more than 20 hours a week.

The companies provided various explanations for the decision, which was slammed by two unions that represent the workers.

Loblaw stores settled into a more stable situation, a spokesperson said at the time, adding the company has invested more than $280 million into safety measures and “is no longer benefiting financially from COVID-19.”

Metro and Empire noted a similar stability.

Trudeau said that the people who have stepped up to help Canadians, often while risking their health or safety, should continue to be supported and respected.

“That’s why we will continue to exhort and expect that people who’ve stepped up during this time be properly supported and paid for it,” he said.

Trudeau’s comments come on the heels of the House of Commons Industry Committee voting unanimously on Thursday to summon representatives of Loblaw, Metro and Empire to explain how they came to the decision, within 24 hours of each other, to cut wage premiums for front-line staff.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was also asked about the decision at an Ottawa news conference Friday and whether it would impact if the companies receive future funding or access to programs.

“I hope that one of the things that this pandemic has taught us is that people who do some of the work which is most essential for our actual, our literal survival are among the lowest paid people in our country,” she said.

“I’m sure that was frightening for many of them,” she said, adding she has told workers at her local grocery stores just how grateful she is for their service.

“I do think that it behoves all of us, including employers, not to forget that lesson.”

Freeland added that the House has heard concerns that government support to Canadians may have provided a disincentive to work.

“I think the fact that grocery stores now feel able to bring the wages back down suggests that there isn’t a powerful disincentive to work out there,” she said.

A Metro spokesperson declined to comment, while Loblaw and Empire did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trudeau and Freeland’s statements.