Unions call on retailers to make virus pay permanent

Unions representing essential workers at some of Canada’s major retailers are pushing back against the decision to eliminate wage premiums that were put in place to compensate employees for working during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic is not over,” Unifor national president Jerry Dias said in a statement. “The danger has not passed. These workers are no less at risk and are no less essential today than they were yesterday. There is no justification for ending pandemic pay now, or ever.”

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The union, which represents some Metro and Loblaws employees, wants to make the pay increases permanent. It has created an online petition seeking public support for its stance.

The retailers, however, are rebuffing that call. Essential employees at Loblaw Companies Ltd., Metro Inc. and Sobeys Inc. will see their COVID-19 bonus pay eliminated today, about two weeks after Walmart Canada employees experienced the cutback.

Loblaw announced Thursday in an email sent to workers that it has “decided the time is right to transition out of our temporary pay premium,” wrote Sarah Davis, Loblaw president, noting its stores and distribution centres “have settled into a good rhythm” and provinces are reopening their economies.

The company started paying a $2-per-hour bonus, or about 15 per cent more, on March 8 when the pandemic first started having a serious impact in Canada. It will stop the bonus pay today.

Metro, which also started paying a $2 premium March 8, will end its bonus pay today as well, communications manager Genevieve Gregoire said in an email.

Walmart Canada paid workers an extra $2 hourly in April and May, as well as a one-time bonus, Adam Grachnik, director of corporate affairs, said in an email. Pay returned to regular rates in June.

Empire Co., which owns the Sobeys and Safeway brands, launched what it called “a temporary Hero Pay Program” March 8 across its stores and distribution centres, according to an April 15 business update. All employees received an extra $50 weekly, while those working more than 20 hours per week also saw a $2 hourly wage increase.

The company sent a memo Friday to corporate store and distribution centre employees announcing cancellation of the temporary program for corporate stores under its brands.

“As provinces execute their reopening plans and customer behaviour shifts, we felt that this was a natural time to end our Hero Pay program,” wrote chief executive Michael Medline in the memo, saying “you will be heroes to us and all Canadians forever.”

Unifor believes these companies should maintain these “long overdue” wage increases rather than eliminate them.

Many of these workers struggle financially, the union said in its petition, and hazard pay during a pandemic is the bare minimum employers should offer.

It called Loblaw’s elimination of COVID-19 bonus pay “wrong.”

Dias noted Loblaw “rightly” continues to enforce social-distancing measures at its stores, so it “knows the risk is not over. It’s just trying to boost profits on the backs of its most vulnerable workers.”

The union released its statement prior to Metro’s announcement, but the union’s spokesperson, Stuart Laidlaw, said the sentiment applies to the Quebec-based chain as well.

While it doesn’t represent Walmart workers, it “absolutely believes that all retail workers deserve to be paid fairly, and that pandemic pay was a start,” he wrote.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement it is “disappointed” with employers choosing to stop their extra pay practices while the pandemic is still active and some provinces still have precautionary measures in place.

“UFCW Canada acknowledges that premium pay was introduced as part of the COVID-19 response, but the union also expressed that premium pay should be maintained throughout the pandemic.”

Loblaw stores have settled into a stable, consistent situation, wrote director of communications Catherine Thomas in an email, noting Loblaw invested more than $280 million into adjustments and safeguards. “The company is no longer benefiting financially from COVID-19.”

Metro noted a similar stability, with Gregoire saying the company is “no longer working under the crisis conditions that prevailed from March through May.” Metro implemented several prevention measures and is now transitioning into recovery, she said.

Walmart and Sobeys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dollarama Inc., which instituted its 10 per cent temporary pay increase March 23, plans to keep it in place until July 1, according to a company statement.

Aleksandra Sagan

The Canadian Press

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