COLUMN: 'Overlooked, underappreciated and, in a way, betrayed'

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, grocery store employees were hailed as heroes and given $2-an-hour bonuses.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, grocery store employees were hailed as heroes and given $2-an-hour bonuses.

Now, in the crippling third wave, most “hero pay” is long gone, there’s little paid sick leave and store staff are still waiting to be vaccinated.

“Overlooked, underappreciated and, in a way, betrayed.”

That’s how it feels, an employee of a major grocery store in Windsor told me.

Yet while we stay home, they keep showing up for work. They need their jobs, and we need to eat. 

The pandemic’s first wave was “very scary,” said this employee, who asked to remain anonymous. Customers flooded stores, panic buying.

The employee would remind people to stay two metres apart, and some would respond, “f— off.”

Now, some customers still walk in without masks, said an employee at another major grocery store in Windsor. When staff remind them to wear masks, “they just ignore them and walk in,” said the second employee, who also asked to remain anonymous.

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Some customers wear their masks pulled down to their chins, said the first employee.

“You should see the looks you get when you ask them to pull (the mask) up,” the employee said. “They look at you like you’re sub-human.”

Signs asking people to stay two metres apart and directional signs are often ignored.

“Most of the time it’s chaos,” said the employee

When long lines form at cash registers, “it’s a madhouse,” the second employee said, with people back-to-back, reaching around others to grab products.

The three main grocery chains — Loblaws, Metro and Empire Co. Ltd., which owns Sobeys and FreshCo — list stores where employees have tested positive. Metro listed more than 100 cases the first three weeks of April, including one at its Howard Avenue store in Windsor. Loblaws listed 119 the last 10 days. Sobeys listed more than 70 in the last two weeks.

Both employees I spoke to worry about being infected. They know the virus variants are more contagious and virulent and more young people like them are getting very sick.

They also worry about infecting family members with compromised immune systems.

“I worry about it a lot,” said the first employee.

Some employees worked more than 12 hours a day with no time off for weeks last year. But they felt needed and appreciated.

Now they feel burned out.

“It’s like if I have to tell one more customer to put their mask up, I could snap,” said the first employee.

They do all this for minimum wage — $14.25 an hour — or slightly higher.

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The $2-an-hour bonus last March wasn’t much, but it was something, some recognition. The companies ditched that in June.

The chains posted hundreds of millions of dollars in profits last year, double-digit increases. Loblaws chairman Galen Weston made $3.55 million, including a $648,000 bonus. President Sarah Davis made $4.53 million, including a $1.35-million bonus, according to the Globe and Mail.

But only Empire pays bonuses to regular staff again. Metro gives staff store gift cards. No Frills gives them company water bottles.

Part-time employees, the majority of staff at some stores, don’t get paid sick leave, either. One employee lost days of pay isolating after a COVID-19 test. The test was negative.

“Going to get tested was such a hard decision because I knew I was going to miss valuable pay that I can’t afford to miss,” the employee said.

Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory table has repeatedly called for paid sick leave for essential workers. The Ontario government has offered only to top up the federal government’s inadequate sick benefit. The federal government rejected that proposal.

Grocery store employees are prioritized for vaccination in the current phase of Ontario’s rollout, but they’re near the bottom of a long list, behind older people, those who live in hot spots or high-risk congregate settings like shelters, those suffering chronic health conditions from organ transplant recipients to diabetics, first responders, teachers, child care workers and farm workers.

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The parent of a grocery store employee emailed me, worried and frustrated about the wait. But, even the parent acknowledged, “I feel guilty saying this group should get it ahead of other people. Everybody should get the vaccine.”

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens three weeks ago called for Ontario to further prioritize essential workers, including grocery store employees.

“Most reasonable people would say those are higher risk settings for COVID transmission, and we should elevate those people because the service they provide obviously is very essential,” he said.

Local public health officials are planning vaccination for more essential workers, but there’s no indication that grocery store employees will be included when vaccine supply doubles during the next two weeks.

The first employee I spoke to remembers taking grocery orders at Christmas, “copious” amounts of food for family get-togethers. But this employee doesn’t see family. This employee is too worried about infecting them.

“My life is on hold because I have to serve these families their food for their get-togethers,” the employee said.

They were called heroes, but what they really need is pandemic pay, sick pay and vaccine, said Tim Deelstra, spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents employees at Metro, Food Basics, Real Canadian Superstore and Wholesale Club in Windsor.

“We think there’s a moral imperative to do that, on the part of employers and on the part of the provincial government,” he said.

ajarvis@postmedia.com

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