Grocery store workers are struggling with heightened stress and anxiety as they remain on the front lines of a surge in COVID-19 infections in Canada’s hot spot areas, industry watchers say.
Despite being deemed essential and continuing to go into work as stay-at-home orders are renewed, most supermarket employees have yet to receive a vaccine or a pay boost.
“I wish I could get the vaccine tomorrow,” said Karen Ekstrom, a Real Canadian Superstore employee in Calgary, who has worked as a cashier for 22 years.
“I think all the grocery clerks should get one because I lost count of how many cases I’ve had in my store.”
Ekstrom is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union,which is calling on provinces to legislate sick days and pandemic pay and vaccinate members that can’t work from home sooner.
They say these workers are scared and stressed and quick action is needed to protect them from a third wave ravaging several provinces.
“They’ve been prioritized and they should be vaccinated by July — but we think it should be faster,” said Tim Deelstra, a spokesman for the United Food & Commercial Workers union, referring to the Ontario vaccine rollout.
“There’s a lot of stress and anxiety that they have to deal with in terms of going to work. We get reports everyday of workers who are getting sick with COVID-19.”
Ekstrom knows those scares well. Her store was recently hit with an outbreak that affected all but four workers on the overnight shift, between those that contracted COVID and others forced to isolate.
The store had to borrow staff from other locations.
While Ekstrom feels safe wearing a mask and stationed behind Plexiglas at the checkout, customers often try to get behind the barrier or have to be reminded about distancing and how to wear a mask, if they wear one at all.
Many don’t take the reminders well.
“The management team at my store has been fantastic, but the customers are terrible and they’re just getting worse and worse,” Ekstrom said.
“I learned to defend myself with this whole pandemic, so I’ve learned to tell the customers ‘I’m here to help you not for you to be rude to me and abuse me’.”
On top of quicker access to vaccine, she wishes enforcement authorities would patrol stores more often to increase safety.