Unions tell MPs that grocery workers should still have pandemic pay

OTTAWA — Union leaders who represent thousands of grocery-store workers are telling MPs there is no reason for large chains to cut pandemic-related pay premiums since the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't gone away.

Representatives from Teamsters Canada, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada and Unifor point to the dozens of retail and warehouse workers who remain sickened with COVID-19 and a report Monday from CTV News in Windsor, Ont. that two workers had just tested positive in the border city.

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Some of those previously sickened have returned to work. A few workers have died from the novel coronavirus disease.

Speaking to a House of Commons committee Monday, the union leaders recommended stricter labour standards and oversight for the sector, beyond getting to the bottom of why the pay premium was abruptly rolled back by some of the largest grocery chains.

Unifor national president Jerry Dias said the fact two more workers now have COVID-19 "is probably proof positive" that the pandemic premium for hourly workers shouldn't have disappeared.

When the pandemic struck Canada in March, major grocery chains said they would boost front-line workers' wages on average about $2 per hour.

But late last month, one after another, the chains announced they were ending the pandemic pay bump because the pace of business had eased, giving the unions short notice about the decision.

MPs on the industry committee agreed to look into the matter and will have a chance to question retail executives at the end of the week.

"Look, the argument is nonsense and every one of us on this panel understands that and I will argue they understand that as well," Dias said, referring to grocery-chain executives.

"So this had nothing to do with somehow the pandemic, 'Oh we're seeing a pot at the end of the rainbow,' this was a decision made about money."

Paul Meinema, national president of the food workers' union, said the federal government should play a more active role in boosting wages for workers in the sector.

Grocery stores were among the businesses governments deemed essential services that didn't have to close as public health restrictions forced companies to cut operations to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic pay was supposed to recognize that workers were being asked to come in to help feed a population ordered to stay home. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said she wanted to determine how to properly compensate workers who are being put in that situation.

Spending on things like gasoline and travel fell but spending on groceries has gone up — one of the few areas of the economy where things appeared positive during the lockdowns of April and May.

NDP MP Brian Masse, who represents a riding in Windsor, Ont., said the industry needs more oversight, calling the committee probe "the first dive at this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2020.

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