Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Thursday June 18, 2020
Grocery chains play the Grinch in springtime
What was going through the minds of Canada’s big grocery chains when they decided, pretty much simultaneously, to end premium pandemic pay for front-line staff?
One thing for sure, it wasn’t positive PR or corporate image messaging. Loblaw, Empire Co. Ltd. (Sobeys) and Metro are all getting hammered for the decision. And they deserve the pounding.
The three grocery giants had been paying their employees a premium for continuing to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping shelves stocked and people fed despite the personal risk. The so-called “hero pay” plans differed somewhat company to company, but they were all intended to convey the message to the public and staff that front-line grocery workers were heroes of the pandemic and deserved recognition.
So what happened? Did the pandemic quietly end? Is the elevated risk gone?
Here is what Loblaw hair Galen Weston said about ending the $2 two dollars per hour premium: “As the economy slowly reopens and Canadians begin to return to work, we believe it is the right time to end the temporary pay premium we introduced at the beginning of the pandemic. Things have now stabilized in our supermarkets and drug stores. After extending the premium multiple times, we are confident our colleagues are operating safely and effectively in a new normal.”
Genevieve Gregoire, Metro’s communication manager, said: “We are no longer working under the crisis conditions that prevailed from March through May as grocers were amongst the only retailers open to the public. Demand is stabilizing as other business are reopening.”
Sobeys CEO Michael Medline put it this way: “As provinces execute their reopening plans and customer behaviour shifts, we felt that this was a natural time to end our Hero Pay program.”
Here’s the thing though. Ontario, for example, is still seeing new cases every day. Yes, the numbers are down, but we still saw 184 new cases between Tuesday and Wednesday morning. There are still new outbreaks at LTC facilities. The public and store staff are still advised or required to wear masks.
Grocery execs and analysts will be quick to point out that most staff are second-income earners, or young people working part-time, as if that somehow means they shouldn’t be paid a living wage. They should and not just during a pandemic.
We are not through this yet. Nearly everyone expects a second wave, which could bring consequences not unlike the first wave. Will grocery chains again decide their staff are heroes and pay them a premium? Will they again take out expensive TV ads thanking those heroes?
And what about the provincial government? It has been full of praise for front-line workers of all stripes. Wouldn’t you think it would reconsider its decision to kill a minimum-wage increase? Or is all Premier Doug Ford’s rhetoric, like that of the grocery store chains, really just a gimmick? (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)