Rise in COVID-19 numbers prompts retail workers to call

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Calls for the return of the risk premium are growing as frontline workers in Canada’s retail industry grow increasingly anxious about the increase in COVID-19 cases.While some companies offered so-called hero pay to essential workers at the start of the pandemic, most pay bonuses ended with the ebb of the first wave.

Still, retail workers say morale is lagging as COVID-19 cases soar across much of the country.

Without a pay rise that recognizes the risk of working during a pandemic, they say workers are getting sicker and sicker – leaving fewer staff to enforce rules around mask wear and physical distancing.

Some companies have solved the problem preventively.

Lowe’s Canada announced this week its intention to pay a discretionary bonus to all eligible workers at Lowe’s, Rona and Réno-Dépôt.

The home improvement retailer in Boucherville, Que., Said full-time staff will receive $ 300 later this month, including $ 150 for part-time staff. The October bonus is in addition to the bonuses paid in March and August and a salary bonus of $ 2 per hour paid from April to July.

Home Depot Canada said it implemented paid sick leave benefits and offered workers a continuous weekly bonus – $ 100 for full-time workers and $ 50 for part-time workers.

Meanwhile, Chapman’s Ice Cream in Markdale, Ont. Recently made its $ 2 an hour pay rise permanent in the event of a pandemic.

It’s something unions across the country are clamoring for, arguing that rising wages not only recognize the continued threat of COVID-19, but also pay workers a living wage.

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

In a June press release, the president of Loblaw Companies Ltd., Galen Weston, called the “right time to end the temporary pay bonus that we put in at the start of the pandemic.”

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

Many workers and unions disagree.

It is a debate currently unfolding in Newfoundland and Labrador, where 11 Loblaw’s stores under the Dominion banner are closed amid an escalating labor dispute.

It is 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 precursor to what to expect as other locals show up to the negotiating table in the coming months.

Jennifer Green, a cashier supervisor in a Dominion in Conception Bay South, said 1,400 grocery store workers had been on strike for more than six weeks in an attempt to secure better wages.

She said without the COVID salary bonus, she lives “from paycheck to paycheck.”

“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 wage premium was canceled, workers felt “sad and upset” and coming to work remained “scary”.

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

Loblaw did not respond to a request for comment.

‘It was like a thank you’

Chris MacDonald, a spokesperson for Unifor, the union representing workers in the Dominion, said the COVID wage premium made workers feel respected.

“It was like a thank you from a retail employer that was more than just ‘attaboy’ or a pat on the back,” he said.

“But now, with the second wave, the workers are scared and worried that they won’t get the same level of respect. ”

Some retailers have had to deal with aggressive customers, with videos surfacing on social media of shoppers questioning the rules around masks and physical distancing.

TUAC Canada spokesman Tim Deelstra said some union members were in “disgusting situations.”

“There were screaming matches,” he said. “Some of our members were spat out or attacked by members of the public. ”

The union is calling for a pay rise to recognize the continued efforts and risks taken by frontline workers.

Amanda Nagy, assistant bakery manager at a Fortinos supermarket in Hamilton – also a Loblaw franchise – said she had worked throughout the pandemic but was getting more and more nervous.

“It’s really overwhelming to see the number of cases increasing every day,” she says. “Then we have anti-masks coming in or people claiming to have a pre-existing condition and not wearing masks – it’s just a scary environment. ”

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

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

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