‘Ab­so­lutely, the fear is there’

HOW COVID-19 HAS AF­FECTED THE UN­SUNG ES­SEN­TIAL WORK­ERS IN CANADA’S SHOPS

Ottawa Citizen - - NP - TOM BLACK­WELL

As an as­so­ci­ate man­ager at a No Frills su­per­mar­ket, He­len Stathopou­los rarely had to con­front ex­is­ten­tial wor­ries on the job. Then came the COVID-19 pan­demic.

For two months, she and col­leagues in north-end Toronto have faced daily risk of in­fec­tion in one of the few en­vi­ron­ments where a locked-down pop­u­lace rou­tinely con­gre­gated in large num­bers.

“When you go to work, you don’t know what you’re go­ing to come up against,” said Sathopou­los, 41. “It would be a lie to say it doesn’t weigh on us. It does. You think about it all the time … Ab­so­lutely, the fear is there.”

The le­gions of gro­cery and phar­macy work­ers across Canada have been the largely un­sung front­line work­ers of the pan­demic, and their quo­tid­ian ex­po­sure to the pub­lic has had an im­pact.

As the epi­demic slows and other re­tail­ers be­gin to open, the anx­i­ety has less­ened. Mean­while, health-care work­ers have def­i­nitely been the hard­est hit by the coron­avirus, with thou­sands sick­ened.

But based on union es­ti­mates and sta­tis­tics pro­vided by some com­pa­nies, at least 500 food-re­tail and phar­macy em­ploy­ees through­out Canada have tested pos­i­tive and sev­eral have died from the dis­ease.

For many shop­pers, as well, do­ing the gro­ceries has been a stress­ful ac­tiv­ity, with some point­ing to such stores as the source of their own in­fec­tions.

One Toronto man posted on Face­book that the only place he could have caught COVID-19 was a su­per­mar­ket that’s been closed for sev­eral days be­cause of an out­break among staff. He says his im­mune-com­pro­mised wife also con­tracted the dis­ease, wind­ing up in in­ten­sive care.

But it re­mains un­clear to what ex­tent su­per­mar­kets have con­trib­uted to the com­mu­nity spread of COVID-19, frus­trat­ing ex­perts try­ing to track how the virus dis­sem­i­nates.

“The data are not be­ing col­lected in a sys­tem­atic way to be able to de­ter­mine many po­ten­tial sources of trans­mis­sion in the com­mu­nity,” said Dr. Jeff Kwong, a fam­ily physi­cian and pub­lic-health pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Toronto. “We have the cat­e­gory ‘Close con­tact of a con­firmed case’ but that doesn’t tell us if the con­tact oc­curred at home or at work, and the type of work in­volved.”

Union and com­pany rep­re­sen­ta­tives ar­gue that pro­tec­tive mea­sures im­ple­mented early on in the pan­demic — from lim­it­ing the num­ber of cus­tomers in stores to in­stalling Plex­i­glas shields for cashiers — have been gen­er­ally ef­fec­tive in keep­ing em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers safe.

In some ways, the pan­demic has even been a boon for a work­force that earns rel­a­tively lit­tle and has seen full-time jobs dwin­dle, said one union leader.

More than 80 per cent of gro­cery em­ploy­ees work part-time, but de­mand in the boom­ing sec­tor has brought full-time hours for many, said Chris MacDon­ald, as­sis­tant to the pres­i­dent of Uni­for, which rep­re­sents about 13,000 su­per­mar­ket em­ploy­ees.

“All of a sud­den, re­tail work­ers are mak­ing de­cent money,” he said. “There are things that change the game for re­tail work­ers. They all got more hours … This COVID-19 has al­lowed us to high­light the im­por­tance of th­ese work­ers, the ne­ces­sity of their work.”

That said, some have suf­fered.

Loblaws Inc, which has al­most 200,000 em­ploy­ees in 2,500 su­per­mar­kets and Shop­pers Drug Mart out­lets, said 204 of them have tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19.

Metro Inc. posts de­tails of in­fec­tions and the stores or ware­houses where they oc­curred on its web­site, and as of Wed­nes­day re­ported 117 COVID-19-pos­i­tive em­ploy­ees.

Sobeys Inc. has a sim­i­lar on­line record of em­ployee in­fec­tions, list­ing 79, plus “nu­mer­ous” work­ers at one store in Lévis, Que., dur­ing a broader com­mu­nity out­break.

Wal­mart Canada re­ports that 73 of its as­so­ci­ates have con­tracted the virus and one has died.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Costco Canada, Rex­all and Phar­masave did not re­spond to re­quests for sim­i­lar in­for­ma­tion.

Barry Sawyer, a top of­fi­cial with the United Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) union, which rep­re­sents 160,000 food-re­tail mem­bers, said “less than 10” of them have died from COVID-19.

Many oth­ers, though, have paid a psy­cho­log­i­cal price, said Wayne Han­ley, pres­i­dent of the UFCW lo­cal rep­re­sent­ing Toronto-area gro­cery work­ers.

“It’s all about … the stress that’s brought on by the un­known when go­ing to work, whether or not all their col­leagues are go­ing to be there,” he said. “Are they go­ing to con­tract the virus on that par­tic­u­lar shift … We’re con­cerned about their men­tal health as time goes on.”

Still, unions say the com­pa­nies have worked pos­i­tively with them to put in place pro­tec­tions, and in many cases boost pay by two dol­lars an hour.

That will­ing­ness to help may have come partly from self-in­ter­est, given work­ers could have cho­sen to stay home in­stead and re­ceive the fed­eral govern­ment’s Canada Emer­gency Re­sponse Ben­e­fit, said MacDon­ald.

“They needed to fig­ure out … how do you make it worth­while for th­ese peo­ple who of­ten are mak­ing a cou­ple of dol­lars over min­i­mum wage at best,” he said. “What makes it worth­while com­ing to work if you can earn 500 bucks stay­ing at home.”

For Stathopou­los, the pan­demic has also been a chance to ob­serve peo­ple dur­ing an his­toric cri­sis, from the ini­tial panic that led to hoard­ing of items like toi­let pa­per to those who self­lessly picked up gro­ceries for elderly neigh­bours.

“You’ve seen the best of hu­man­ity and the worst of hu­man­ity, all at the same time.”

JONATHAN HAY­WARD/ THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

A clear bar­rier helps shield a cashier from po­ten­tial ex­po­sure to the coron­avirus at a gro­cery store in North Van­cou­ver, B.C.

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