On the frontlines of a pandemic

Grocery store workers have been braving the frontlines during COIVD-19.

Even a few months ago, no one could have imagined the grocery store as a volatile place to work. But today, as employees find themselves on the frontlines of a global pandemic, their workplaces are becoming just that.

“I have spoken to a number of grocery store associates and while they’re thankful to have a job, they’re also scared about their health because they can’t control who is coming into the store and if they’re observing the rules,” says Amar Singh, principal analyst at Kantar Consulting.

READ: How Canadian grocery is dealing with COVID-19

While most grocers have taken measures to protect employees during COVID-19 (e.g., increasing sanitization efforts, installing Plexiglass at check-outs, getting employees to wear gloves and discouraging customers from using cash), Singh says more education is needed for staff and the public. He suggests more training for staff on sanitation protocols that will likely be the norm post pandemic. “Habits take time to set and maybe we need people supervising staff at checkout to make sure they’re conforming ,” he says. While some retailers are doing a great job in explicitly asking the public to keep safe distances within stores, he says others are still struggling on this front.

READ: Grocers raise wages in response to COVID-19 pandemic

U.S. grocery chain H-E-B, based in Texas, has been lauded for having had an emergency preparedness response team in place years before COVID-19 hit. “They already had an idea of how something like this could affect employees and customers so they were ahead of the game in reducing store hours and implementing a hotline for employee concerns,” says Natan Reddy, senior analyst at CB Insights. “I see grocery stores right up there with other front-line workers so there needs to be more employee resources for people who need them.”

At Vince’s Market, an Ontario-based independent grocer, the wellbeing of employees has been a key priority from the start of this pandemic, says managing partner Giancarlo Trimarchi. Staff were told they didn’t have to come to work if they didn’t feel safe during the COVID-19 outbreak, and there would be no pressure or “bad blood” if they stayed home, says Trimarchi (10% opted to do so). “It’s about honesty and transparency; and for those who stayed, I still provide constant updates on how we’re protecting them, including screening our customers for symptoms.” It’s the little things, too, he says, such as giving employees who are working consistently a few extra days off.

Meanwhile, at Ontario’s Nature’s Emporium, president Joe D’Addario says keeping staff morale up has been a priority, especially as employees are sometimes having to deal with customers who are, themselves, stressed. “Customers sometimes forget that employees are facing thousands of people a day and need to feel appreciated,” he says, pointing to wage hikes and initiatives like getting staff to stock shelves at night so they feel safer. “After all, if we lose them now, we won’t be able to keep our doors open anyway.”

As the crisis continues for the foreseeable future, Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says we can expect temporary measures like grocery wage hikes and Plexiglass at checkouts to last for a while, even post-pandemic. “This has really raised the bar for everyone in retail and going forward we’re going to have to make sure people feel as safe as possible in the grocery store,” he says. How you manage employees is critical to that process.

Charlebois commends initiatives like those by the Quebec government, which was the first to temporarily close grocery stores and other essential services on Sundays. “Grocery is under a lot of pressure right now and we have to give some breathing room to the supply chain,” he says. “Employees have a personal life, too, and their employers need to think about how this crisis is affecting them.”

Having already lived through epidemics like SARS, Al Berman, president of the DRI International Foundation, says managing employee expectations is critical for employers during times like these. “Employees need to know they’re going to be cared for, especially if this drags on for a while,” he says. “People are much more adaptable than we think, but that means knowing there are standards in place to protect them.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s May 2020 issue.

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