Grocery chains stick it to workers despite huge profits

Lucas Lee, former Loblaw’s cashier

LUCAS LEE CAN’T AFFORD TO BE A HERO ANYMORE. Lucas worked for weeks during the worst of the pandemic in Ontario. He quit on June 22 when Loblaws cut his pay and hours.

Lucas is 22 years old. He started work as a cashier at a Loblaws store in Toronto on April 22—the same day Ontario set a provincial record with 634 new cases of Covid-19.

He was told his hourly pay rate would be “$14 plus two.” That is: the regular hourly rate plus the temporary pay raise of two dollars per hour for all hourly workers  Loblaw chair Galen Weston had announced roughly a month earlier.

What Galen Weston gives...

Weston said the raise was a way to recognize the extraordinary efforts of Loblaw’s workers and to share the benefits of increased sales. He said the company “wanted to make sure that a significant portion of that benefit would go straight into the pockets of the incredible people on the front line.”

Lucas figured he had earned it. He says: “In an eight-hour shift, I would help more than 100 customers, and I became hyperaware of every cough, trying to gauge exactly how dry they sounded. Every mild headache or sore muscle I experienced would trigger a feeling of dread. I’m young and in relatively good health, but getting sick felt inevitable.”

Safety precautions in the store were lax to non-existent. The soap dispensers in the men’s washroom stayed empty for weeks on end, for example.

Galen Weston takes away

In late April, Loblaw’s reported first quarter revenue had exceeded that of 2019 by more than $1 billion. The corporation rewarded its workers on June 11 by eliminating the $2 per hour “heroes pay” benefit.

On that same day Loblaws cut Lucas’ hours. He was told to expect no more than 15 to 20 hours of work per week—about half of what he had been working to that point. The double cut meant Lucas would take home less than the $1,250 he  was entitled to through CESB (Canada Emergency Student Benefit).

Lucas quit his job a Loblaws on June 22. He says, “Putting my future on hold for the sake of my physical and mental health is a price I’m willing to pay.”

Unions immediately objected to the shoddy way the workers were treated. MPs had their own questions. Beginning with whether or not the grocers colluded when every single one of them decided to axe the “heroes pay” benefit on the same day.

“It doesn’t make sense to cancel pandemic pay when we’re still experiencing a pandemic situation,” Paul Meinema, national president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada, told MPs on the House of Commons industry committee July 6.

“This was a decision made about money, period,” said Unifor national president Jerry Dias, whose union represents more than 20,000 workers in supermarkets, pharmacies and in food distribution.

MPs grill executives

Major Canadian grocery executives were grilled by MPs on July 10. Executives for Loblaw, Metro and Empire, which operates the Sobeys chain, all denied any collusion on cutting the $2-per-hour premium pay for supermarket workers.

“Everything was above board within legal boundaries,” said Metro president and CEO Eric La Flèche

The top-level exchanges sparked a trail of pointed questions from the MPs, that could lead to scrutiny from the Competition Bureau.

Loblaw president Sarah Davis,  said the introduction of premium pay was “never about safety” but rather an “appreciation for dealing with the extenuating situation.” She denied her company profited from COVID-19 .

Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi told the executives Canadians are “somewhat shocked” by the grocers’ treatment of the workers.

“None of the colleagues in my business are surprised,” replied Davis.

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