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Pressure mounting for grocers to bring back ‘hero pay’ amid Omicron surge

Advocates calling for reinstatement of pay bump due to increasing COVID concerns
Advocates say front-line supermarket workers are facing the biggest risks due to COVID. (contributed photo)

The failure of Canada’s grocers to reinstate “hero pay” for employees amid an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases is “about greed, period,” the head of the country’s largest private-sector union said Friday.

Unifor national president Jerry Dias said while front-line supermarket workers are facing the biggest risks, executives are receiving the biggest rewards.

Top grocery bosses have cashed multi-million dollar bonuses as sales and profits soar during the pandemic — even as they refuse to bring back pay bumps for employees, he said.

“Employees on the front line are at risk every day and yet it’s the executives being rewarded handsomely,” Dias said. “They’re making record profits but don’t have the decency to pay their employees what they’re worth.”

His comments come after the federal NDP critic for economic development, MP Brian Masse, sent a letter to the heads of Canada’s biggest supermarkets this week saying workers are doing risky work and again deserve a wage premium to keep stores open and shelves stocked.

Three grocery chains — Loblaws, Metro and Sobeys — ushered in a $2-an-hour pay bump in the early days of the pandemic. It was cancelled after the first wave subsided.

While each chain has sporadically reintroduced either wage bonuses or other incentives, it appears none have offered workers pay premiums as a result of the Omicron surge.

Loblaw did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while Metro declined to comment.

However, Sobeys shared a letter CEO Michael Medline sent in response to Masse’s concerns.

“We are the only retailer in Canada who publicly committed to reinstating our Hero Pay/Lockdown Bonus program when regions or provinces go back into lockdowns that close all non-essential retail,” he said.

Sobeys has distributed over $110 million in “hero pay” and bonuses to its front-line team members since the beginning of the pandemic, Medline said.

Sobeys spokeswoman Jacquelin Weatherbee added in an email that the company is closely watching the constantly changing restrictions.

If government-mandated lockdowns once again close all non-essential retail, the grocer will reinstate its lockdown bonus, she said.

Yet Dias said the risk of catching COVID-19 has never been greater for retail workers as infections surge across the country.

“Pandemic pay was a recognition that front-line workers are at an increased risk from the coronavirus,” he said. “That danger is still there.”

Dalhousie University professor of food distribution and policy Sylvain Charlebois said other parts of the food industry, including processing and distribution, have seen wages increase permanently during the pandemic.

“Employees in stores also deserve higher wages,” Charlebois said. “It’s time to look at wages seriously.”

Other retailers, such as Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd. and The Home Depot Canada, replaced temporary pandemic bonuses with permanent wage increases.

However, part of the issue in food retail is that it’s a “high volume, low margin environment,” Charlebois said.

“If grocery chains raised wages by $2 an hour across the board, most of the stores in their networks would likely run at a loss,” he said. “That’s the reality of grocery shopping.”

Meanwhile, increasing automation could reduce the number of workers companies need to run a grocery store, but those people could be better paid, Charlebois said.

“Knowing the financial realities of running a grocery store, you can’t afford to keep the same amount of people (and increase both automation and wages across the board),” he said.

But Dias said employees deserve a living wage.

“You can always find justification not to do the right thing,” he said. “The bottom line is those on the front lines deserve to have decent hours and to make a decent living wage.”

UFCW Canada, which also represents grocery retail workers in Canada, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

—Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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