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SALUTE: For grocery store staff, the work is ‘no different’ than two months ago

Health and safety of grocery store employees relies on every person coming into the store

The Surrey Now-Leader published a special tribute to frontline workers in its Thursday, April 30th edition. This story focuses on grocery store workers. Click here to see the whole section.

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One of the first places people noticed a change last month was at grocery stores, whether it was lineups outside to get in or people racing through aisles with shopping carts to get their hands on some toilet paper.

Since those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in B.C., several changes have been made in the way we would have typically done our grocery shopping.

“I think one of the biggest issues is how quickly COVID-19 and health and safety regulations and recommendations from the public health office have been coming down,” said Kim Novak, president of UFCW 1518, which represents grocery store employees.

The union, Novak said, represents roughly 24,000 employees across B.C. and the Yukon.

“It’s making sure that all of the employers that our members work for have been following those guidelines and really stepping up with respect to health and safety standards, making sure that the proper personal protective equipment is available and that workers are working in a safe environment, especially those who have contact with the public, like in grocery stores and in-home support.

“One member, one young worker, told me that the health and safety of every person working relies on every person coming into the store. I think that really was impactful because you never know who’s coming in grocery shopping and you hope that they’re not unwell.”

Some of those health-and-safety changes have included plastic shields at cash registers, employees sanitizing shopping carts and baskets, and markers on the floor to remind people of social distancing and one-way aisles.

In addition to making sure that the right health and safety measures are in place, Novak said the union is doing public campaigns to remind customers of “how important it is that they are following distancing, they’re limiting who they bring to the grocery store and that they are showing their appreciation, being patient and kind, especially as lineups are long and the product you’re looking for may not be on the shelf.”

As for employee morale, she said that members have told her that when they get a “thank you” or told how much they’re appreciated, “that really does go a long way.”

A plexiglass barrier is pictured creating a barrier to protect a cashier at a grocery store in North Vancouver on Sunday, March 22. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Several grocery chains in Canada have increased pay for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, including some of the employees that UFCW 1518 represents.

“Right now it was, they’re on the frontlines, lets ensure they are getting extra pay for that but through the collective bargaining and negotiations process, we are going to be pushing for these wages to be increasing overall.”

But the work grocery store employees are doing “is no different than the work they were doing two months ago,” Novak added.

“The conditions around them have changed and I think the public values them in a different way because of the essential and critical services that they provide. This includes members in the food processing plant and in health care as well,” she said.

“I think what we heard from our members is, ‘Let’s make sure this isn’t forgotten after COVID.’ That there really (are) initiatives to make sure that the value that is there today in the work that they’re doing is also valued after this pandemic is over.”

Right now, Novak said, it’s about reacting as measures change with COVID-19 and implementing those changes right away.

“But as we move forward, it’s really identifying what were the gaps before and how do we fill those so that we’re prepared in the event this happens again and so that workers have more protections,” she explained.

“That means sick time for anybody who is sick so that you’re not feeling the pressure to either have to come into work to be paid or not, even if you’re not feeling well. I think there’s other things like the pay that workers are receiving, right now, yes, they are working in some hazardous conditions, but again, that value of the work they are doing shouldn’t disappear after this.

“I think more than anything how are we making sure the health and safety standards and how the training that people have… so that we can be really proactive and making sure that these workplaces are staying safe through flu seasons and through pandemics.”

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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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