Big chain grocers chop hazard pay to ‘everyday heroes’


HEROES DON’T DESERVE A PAY CUT. But they got one anyway. All our big grocery chains recently clawed back the $2-an-hour “hero pay” they had given their workers in the early days of the corona pandemic.

The fact the work remains every bit as risky and difficult as ever, didn’t stop them. Neither did the fact the stores are making more money than ever.

"What else is new?" asked Linda Power, a clerk in a Sobey’s in Truro, N.S. “When did bosses ever put workers, or anything else, ahead of their bottom line? Paying us more was good PR for a while. When it wasn’t, they stopped. End of story.”

Zeroes to heroes and back

“There’s the perception among frontline staff who feel like they were considered zeroes, then heroes, now back zeroes,” says Suzanne Sears, President of Best Retail Careers International. “There’s a strong emotional reaction.”

“Two dollars an hour is not a huge amount of money... but it is a sign of respect and appreciation.”

There’s not a grocery store or big box store that has lost money during the present crisis because they paid more for their staff. The amount came off of pure profit, said Sears.

“So if you can pay it why don’t you pay it,” she added.

Grocers’ profits soar


Shopper outside Sobey's store in Toronto

Loblaw, Sobey’s and Metro grocery stores raised the pay of their workers by $2-per-hour for 14 weeks from March 8 to June 13.

Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw, said the pay increase was to recognize employees for “their outstanding and ongoing efforts keeping our stores open and operating so effectively.”

Just how effectively was made plain by Empire Co. Ltd.—the owner of the largest supermarket chain in Canada, that includes Sobey’s, Safeway and FreshCo.

On June 18, Empire announced its adjusted net earnings had ballooned by $181 million in its fourth quarter—a 43 per cent jump compared to last year. Chief executive Michael Medline called the 13-week period, which ended on May 2, “one of our proudest quarters in Empire’s 113-year history.”

Empire had axed its “hero pay” for frontline staff just one week before announcing the bonus payout for shareholders.

Union fights for Fair Pay Forever

“It’s all about greed,” he said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor—the union that represents roughly 2,000 Empire employees

“Retail workers have always been essential, and they have always deserved much better,” says Dias. “The fact is, the pandemic did not make these workers essential and did not create the inequities in retail, it simply exposed them.

Unifor is leading the charge to “make fair pay permanent” as the country slowly emerges from the pandemic. Its Fair Pay Forever campaign calls on employers of “essential workers” in the food, pharmacy and broad retail sector to make the temporary pandemic wage premiums permanent.

MPs to question grocers

The House of Commons standing committee on industry, science and technology voted to invite Empire, Loblaw and Metro to appear at the committee and “explain their decisions to cancel, on the same day, the modest increase in wages for front-line grocery store workers during the pandemic, including how those decisions are consistent with competition laws.”

The companies are not required to appear before the committee, but have said they will.

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