OHS Canada Magazine

Workers deemed essential may face mental-health burden after pandemic

Remember us after COVID-19, comes plea from grocery store staffer


Grocery store workers have been deemed essential across Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. (pixfly/Adobe Stock)

By Camille Bains

DELTA, B.C. — Worrying about being infected with COVID-19 at the grocery store where she works has become part of the job for Kelly Ferguson, who lives with her 90-year-old mother.

“I’m terrified of getting my mom sick,” said Ferguson, adding that her mother’s caregiver stopped coming by five weeks ago so she and her sister ensure one of them is home from work to fill that role.

Ferguson began working at FreshCo last December when Safeway rebranded the store as part of a restructuring by Nova Scotia-based Empire.

Grocery store employees are considered essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ferguson said she earns minimum wage of $13.85 an hour, with a recent temporary top-up of $2 per hour after the first 20 hours.

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Sobeys, which operates FreshCo and other stores including IGA and Thrifty Foods, is among employers that are temporarily offering so-called hero pay.

“I don’t feel like a hero,” Ferguson said. “I’m just trying to pay my bills.”

She said the strain of constantly keeping her physical distance from customers weighs heavily on her, and other workers deemed essential may face an accumulation of mental health stress after the pandemic.

While most customers have been courteous, some have allowed their frustrations over the shortage of items like flour and paper towels to spill over, including one person who recently threw a jug of milk at a cashier, Ferguson said.

“They’re impatient and they’re pissed off because they can’t get what they want,” she said.

Top-up pay

Ferguson said employers that are offering extra pay should remember grocery store workers’ ongoing contributions after the pandemic by improving their wages.

Sobeys spokeswoman Jacquelin Weatherbee said 75 cases of COVID-19 were identified between April 1 and 20 in its stores across the country, 45 of them in Quebec alone.

She said employees at corporately owned stores, just over half the 1,500 stores the company operates, as well as those at 31 distribution centres are receiving an extra $50 per week, regardless of the number of hours they work, and a $2 an hour top-up after 20 hours.

Most of the franchisee stores, like the one where Ferguson works, are also providing those incentives, Weatherbee said.

“That was put in place so that employees who work minimal hours through a part-time schedule, maybe four hours a week, would still be recognized in a meaningful way,” she said.

Sobeys will assess in mid-May how long the extra-pay measure will continue, Weatherbee said, adding the company is limiting the number of customers allowed in at one time and providing personal protection equipment to employees.

“We have been doing absolutely everything we can to increase our access to masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, everything that’s needed to keep our employees safe. We were the first grocer to install plexiglass shields in all of our stores across the country.”

Loblaw said it has extended its essential pay premium of $2 an hour into May.

In Loblaws stores where an employee tests positive for COVID-19, it says a “deep cleaning” is done overnight. Employees who work closely with someone who tests positive can stay home in self-isolation with pay, it says.

“With the community spread of COVID-19, it’s unfortunate but probable that some stores will be affected,” the company says in a statement. “That’s why we have enhanced our sanitization and protections.”

Inconsistent response

Paul Meinema, national president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said some employers are limiting customer numbers but that’s been inconsistent.

“We believe that this is one of the biggest difficulties we have and almost uniformly is not done as well as it could be,” he said. “We have bunching up in the aisles. We have people who are required to stock shelves but there are other people coming down those aisles.”

Loblaw says it has provided its stores with gloves and masks, but it is up to individual workers to decide whether they wear them. It has also installed Plexiglas barriers at each cash, limited customer numbers and, like Sobeys, uses floor decals to encourage physical distancing.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, recently said barriers installed at checkouts should provide sufficient protection for retail workers.

“I would reassure people that that is one of the simplest and most effective things we can do to prevent transmission,” Henry said.

Prof. Rafael Gomez of the University of Toronto said as non-unionized stores like Costco and Walmart have expanded their food retail spaces, it has led to lower wages elsewhere in the sector.

“Keeping wages and conditions lower than they would be and prices higher for consumers set us up for this reckoning we’ve had under COVID,” said Gomez, director of the university’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources.

In food retail, employees at some stores operated by the same company are unionized while others are not, he said, adding that greater recognition of grocery store jobs should translate into higher pay.

“These are critical lifelines now for the rest of society so these people should be able to get a lot more than they’re getting.”


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12 Comments » for Workers deemed essential may face mental-health burden after pandemic
  1. Anthony Quinn says:

    I don’t think it’s fair, that the government gives everybody else, but “Essential retail workers” all this money. At Dollarama we were given a 10% raise on our checks, but that doesn’t do anything, with what we have to deal with in a daily basis. We can’t tell who is sick and who isn’t, we can’t tell who is a carrier and who isn’t. Us “Essential retail workers” should be given the same as a front line worker. I sure as hell don’t make 2,500 a month nor do I make 2,000 a month, and I sure as hell bet neither do a lot of employees in Canada do. And I work full time for minimum wage in Ontario. I haven’t heard @Fordnation say anything about us. We had to use our vacation pay if we had to isolate, which I don’t think is fair either. All essential retail workers should get better pay from our companies, or the government should top us up as well.

  2. tanya says:

    my son delivers medications and groceries for Safeway. He has not received anything for continuing to work during this Pandemic. He does get warnings when he is delivering to someone who may be positive for the Coronavirus but as for any appreciation that he is continuing to work, he gets nothing. He works full-time with 32 hours a week and after taxes does not even bring home nearly $1000 a paycheque. How is this fair?

  3. I’m risking my life for your fries says:

    I am a fast food drive thru worker and from the very first day Ontario announced we were “essential” workers I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t believe it.

    I am getting paid minimum wage. We work with so many employees at once and it’s IMPOSSIBLE to socially distance.

    We serve over 1000 cars a day and for all of March and 3 weeks of April we didn’t have hand sanitizers or those plexiglass shields- exposing us to hundreds of people every day

    I am angry that I am risking my life for less than someone safe at home on CERB. But I can’t choose to leave just because I’m afraid- I won’t qualify.

    I am scared that a coworker will try to hide they are sick, because we all have bills to pay- and we aren’t offered any sick days.

    If the government considered us essential enough to stay open they should be paying us a bonus. Justin Trudeau announced low income workers making under 2500 a month would be topped up. He lied. Big surprise.

    • Chris says:

      If you are making less than the CERB, you need to take your employer to court! You realize that what people are getting on the CERB is still taxable, and it amounts to about 11.75 an hour before taxes!

    • Chris says:

      The $2500 Top up is for ppl working in long term care

  4. Linda says:

    Just when will this 2500 minimum top up for essential services start

  5. amanda heavena says:

    also not many people qualified for CERB, not fair that people who already had enough money to get by got CERB extra money now and look at us minimum wage part timers

  6. Lynn says:

    I agree with previous posts. I am considered an essential worker also making min wage, hours were cut due to dining room closure and less business. I understand that, the owners are losing money also. But if we are essential and we do not see any compensation for being at risk, dealing with public all day long and how do we know who is sick. It is very disheartening and scary.

  7. Katie says:

    agreed. what happened to the government top up for essential workers anyway? I am one as well. There is talk of them cutting the extra 2 dollars an hour of hazard pay at the end of may too. And employees at a different store, but same chain tested positive for COVID! I am afraid, underpaid, and our management shows zero appreciation. I’m called essential, but sure doesn’t feel that way.

  8. audrey says:

    I work for a pizza place, considered an “essential business” for take-out and delivery, our boss gave us a $2 raise called “hero pay” for one pay period – two weeks – that’s it. Then we went back to cut hours and regular wages. I serve around 100 people a day, not to mention the drivers coming in and out of the store. We have no plexiglass, and people who come in are living off cerb that I don’t qualify for and putting me at risk while I make minimum wage. If we are considered essential we should be included in the backdated $4 wage increase that nurses get.

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