Higher pay for grocery employees deserved but doesn’t go far enough, says union president

The president of the union that represents workers at Safeway says the company’s move to increase employees’ pay temporarily is good, but doesn’t go far enough to recognize the vital role such workers are playing during the COVID-19 epidemic.

On March 22, Canada Safeway CEO Michael Medline announced the company’s Hero Pay program, which will see all employees receive an extra $50 per week no matter how many hours they work while those who work 20 hours or more per week will receive a $2 per hour premium for every worked beyond 20 hours. The increased pay is retroactive to March 8 and will be reassessed at the end of April. Workers will receive their first payments of the additional wages beginning in April.

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“Our team is playing a vital role in providing Canadians with the food, medicine and essentials they need for their families during this terrible crisis,” Medline said in a letter posted on Canada Safeway’s Facebook page.

The same day, Northern and NorthMart stores announced that they would be temporarily increasing wages for all active front-line employees in their stores by $2 an hour, retroactive to March 8. The increase is effective until April 4 and may be extended as needed, said the North West Company’s Canadian retail president Alex Yeo in a press release.

Jeff Traeger, president of United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 832, which represents Safeway workers and other members in Manitoba, said the increased wages for Safeway workers are a good start.

“We don’t think it goes far enough,” he said, with half of the union’s members in Safeway stores having earnings below the poverty line. “Grocers like Safeway are making a huge, huge windfall off this. We’ve been arguing that grocery workers are largely unappreciated and underpaid. We plan on taking some of that public opinion to the bargaining table. I honestly believe it’s because of public pressure that a retailer decided to provide additional pay.”

Traeger says that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy, the only places that remained open were hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies.

“That tells me they’re a critical service,” he said. 

The union president praised efforts to improve worker safety taken by employers of UFCW Local 832 members since the novel coronavirus arrived in Manitoba.

“They’re trying to keep up with that,” he said.

What he would like to see is the provincial government including grocery store workers in its list of employees who are eligible to receive personal protective equipment.

“Health care workers get that first,” said Traeger, which he agrees with. “Grocery workers aren’t  even on the list.”

He would also like to see grocery store workers included among the essential personnel eligible for child care being provided during the pandemic.

“Some spots should be opened for grocery workers,” he said. 

Traeger has not yet received a response from Premier Brian Pallister to a letter he sent a week ago saying that grocery workers should automatically get approved for workers compensation if they test positive for COVID-19, given that they probably have as high of a risk as some health care workers of being exposed to the virus.

“Right now that’s not the case,” he said.

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