Grocery store union seeks higher pay and stricter safety rules

Grocery store workers should get extra pay for staffing the front lines, and shoppers should be limited to once-a-week visits during the pandemic, says a union official.

“We call them heroes. We call them front-line workers, and they’re going to work scared to death,” said Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, whose members include several hundred food store workers in Red Deer.

Hesse said a worker with asthma told him about her fears of getting infected. But she needed the paycheque and did not want to go on employment insurance, he said.

A spokesperson for Sobeys, which owns IGA, Safeway and other brands, says the company has taken more than a dozen steps to protect its workers at more than 1,500 stores across Canada.

The dedicated store employees who continue to go to work and brave contact with hundreds of people a day should be rewarded, said Hesse.

“When you’re working in the store during the COVID threat and risk, employees should get time and a half,” he said.

Extra pay is common for working overtime or on holidays, he said.

It’s not as if the grocery giants cannot afford to pay, he said. Overall, grocery store revenues are 16 per cent higher than those before last year’s December holiday season, typically the best shopping week of the year.

Hesse says it’s time the government stepped up and recognized the reality grocery store workers face during a pandemic.

“We’re going to be asking for a new regulatory regime for grocery stores.”

The union wants to see limits on how many people can go into the store, as well as a one-visit-per-week rule for shoppers, along with a requirement that they shop alone.

Mandatory masks for customers and staff, and a requirement that shopping carts be used instead of baskets to promote physical distancing, are other union proposals.

Rotating weekend store closures would also ease the stress on staff and allow for more thorough cleaning, he said.

The Sobeys representative responded to a request for information with an email listing the measures the company has taken to safeguard its workers.

Employees have been given personal protective equipment such as gloves, store tills have been fitted with Plexiglas shields, one-way aisles have been created, hand baskets have been removed, and shopping carts are disinfected regularly, said the spokesperson.

Customers with re-usable bags must pack them themselves, product demos have been cancelled and the numbers of customers in the store at any one time is limited.

On the food front, self-serve areas are closed and bulk bins have been removed.

Employees who feel sick are encouraged to stay home and are urged to follow all health recommendations regarding travel exposure.

Sobeys did not respond to whether it was considering extra pay or rotating store closures.

How to improve safety for grocery store employees is sure to enter into ongoing labour negotiations, Hesse said. Contracts for workers at Safeway and Superstore have expired.

In a “short number of weeks,” Safeway employees will be in a position to strike and Superstore workers will have the same right a few weeks after that.

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