An Ontario Loblaws store. Image: Chelsea Nash/rabble.ca

As the COVID-19 pandemic extends into June, Canadian grocery store workers and their unions are concerned about the looming prospect of their temporary wage increase coming to an end. 

On March 21, Loblaw Companies Ltd. was the first national grocery retailer to implement a temporary 15 per cent raise for its workers, retroactive to March 8, which for most front-line workers resulted in an increase of $2 an hour. Shortly after Loblaw’s announcement, other national grocery retailers followed suit, with Metro also implementing a $2 an hour raise retroactive to March 8, and Empire Company Limited — which owns Sobeys, Safeway, Foodland, and IGA — awarding its employees an extra $50 a week with an additional $2 an hour for every hour worked beyond 20 hours a week. 

For Loblaw — which owns its namesake stores, as well as Shoppers Drug Mart, Dominion, Superstore, Fortinos, and Zehrs, among others — the increase was initially set to end April 30. It has been extended every two weeks since then, first to mid-May, then to May 30, and on Friday, Loblaw announced in an internal letter to its employees that the wage premium was extended until June 13. 

“As we return to normal in more and more aspects of our operation — and our lives in general — we continue to appreciate everything you have been doing to help Canadians live life well,” read Friday’s letter to employees, which was signed by Loblaw president Sarah Davis, and provided to rabble.ca by a Loblaws employee in the form of screenshots. 

Loblaw did not return requests for comment on when it would be ending the temporary wage premiums. 

Metro, which also operates Food Basics stores, said in an email that, “in the context of a gradual return to normalcy,” it had offered an extension of its wage premium to employees at its stores and distribution centres until June 13, “extending it two weeks beyond what had been planned.” 

B.C.’s UFCW 1518 president Kim Novak said “at the very least” the wage increase needs to continue through to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. The union represents B.C. workers at Sobeys, Save-on-Foods, Safeway, FreshCo, and IGA, in addition to workers at some smaller local retailers.  

“We were given this premium because of the fact that they were facing hazards, and…they’re still doing work on the front lines of a pandemic,” Novak said.

Daniel Isaac, a Loblaws employee in Toronto, said the wage premium should stay as long as the pandemic lasts, but is concerned that it won’t. 

“Ultimately if the wage increase ends too soon, I think that many employees would not return to work considering the conditions are still not back to how they used to be,” Isaac said.

On Sunday, a downtown Toronto Loblaws location closed for a deep cleaning after two of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. 

Novak said that “COVID is by no means close to being over. Seeing that premium come away from people before we’re kind of through this is not something that we see being a good thing for anybody, including these employers who really rely on them to make sure that their businesses are up and running.”

Tanner Greatrix, an employee at an Ontario Loblaws store, said that when he first found out about the pay raise, he was “impressed” by the company’s recognition of what he describes as a gruelling few months of mental and physical labour. But, he said the “big asterisk beside it about it being temporary” was concerning to him. 

Due to COVID-19 lockdown measures, Greatrix’s partner has been unable to work, and he is now the sole earner. “Normally she would make more money than me,” Greatrix said. “Me being able to have some extra money coming in, especially since we’d just moved, is pretty important.” The uncertainty of when his raise will end is a stressor, he said. 

Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Local 832 in Manitoba, said its members feel similarly. The union represents Loblaw workers in the province and workers at the Empire-owned Safeway stores, in addition to those working at the Winnipeg-based Red River Co-op. 

“There’s a significant amount of stress being expressed by people in the stores, that: ‘we’ve kind of gotten used to this being our compensation for the work we do and if it’s taken away it’s going to hurt,'” he said. 

If workers are now the sole earners because their partners have lost their jobs, it could be the difference between making rent or putting food on the table, Traeger added.  

Isaac said they have found themself to be stressed whenever the increase comes close to its expiration date and the company has yet to announce an extension. 

Waiting to see if the wage premium is extended every few weeks is far from the only stressor grocery store workers are currently facing. 

Wayne Hanley, president of UFCW Canada Local 1006A, and international vice president of UFCW International, said he is concerned for the long term mental health of his union’s members given that they are “working in an environment that [is] life or death.” Hanley referenced incidents in southwestern Ontario where employees of essential businesses were intentionally being coughed at and spit on. 

Greatrix said that because of how hard he and his coworkers have been working throughout the pandemic — mentally and physically — the fact that the wage premium is temporary “feels a little insulting.” 

He thinks the temporary wage increase should become permanent, because the pandemic has highlighted “that we actually are pretty damn important not just to the store or to the company, but to society-at-large.”  

Sunil Johal, who chaired the Expert Panel on Modern Labour Standards for the federal government, noted that the pandemic has forced Canadians to realize how reliant they are on workers like grocery store workers. “We should take stock of that now and make sure that those people don’t go back into the shadows of the labour market after this pandemic is over,” he said. 

To Johal, that means giving them a decent living wage, which he says should be about $15 an hour in Canada. Minimum wage in Canada ranges from $11.75 an hour in Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba to $15 an hour in Alberta — the only province or territory to offer that amount. 

Greatrix hopes that the public support for grocery store workers can translate into fair pay, not just “a popular thing to talk about.” 

“The work was essential before, and we’re just acknowledging that it’s essential now,” he said.  

Chelsea Nash is rabble’s labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Chelsea Nash/rabble.ca

Editor’s note, May 27, 2020: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that customers of essential businesses had been intentionally coughed at and spit on. In fact it was employees, not customers.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identitfied a UFCW local in Manitoba. It is UFCW Local 832, not 842.

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Chelsea Nash

Chelsea is rabble.ca’s editor and currently lives in Barrie, Ontario. She began her journalism career covering Parliament Hill as a staff reporter for The Hill Times in...