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Loblaw, Metro ending pandemic pay

Front-line workers will no longer receive the additional $2 an hour but will receive a one-time bonus

Essential employees at Loblaw Companies Ltd. and Metro Inc. will see their COVID-19 bonus pay eliminated as two of Canada's largest grocery chains pull back on support measures for their staff introduced early in the pandemic--a decision two unions say is premature.

With the coronavirus a part of Canadians' lives for more than three months, Loblaw's stores and distribution centres "have settled into a good rhythm," wrote Sarah Davis, Loblaw president, in an email to workers sent Thursday morning.

"With this stability and economies re-opening, we have decided the time is right to transition out of our temporary pay premium."

Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw, first outlined the $2-per-hour bonus in mid-March, saying that Loblaw would pay store and distribution centre employees roughly 15% more "in recognition of their outstanding and ongoing efforts keeping our stores open and operating so effectively."

The move was retroactive to March 8, around when the pandemic first started having a serious impact in Canada.

READ: Dollarama, Walmart boost employee pay in light of COVID-19

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

"It is because of their dedication that we were able to meet the needs of our customers while ensuring their safety and well-being," she said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, however, said in a statement it was "disappointed" with employers choosing to stop their extra pay practices when the pandemic is not over and some provinces still have various 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."

Unifor called Loblaw's elimination of COVID-19 bonus pay "wrong" and suggested the higher wages be a permanent change at the chain.

"The pandemic is not over. The danger has not passed. These workers are no less at risk and are no less essential today than they were yesterday," Jerry Dias, Unifor National president, wrote in a statement.

"There is no justification for ending pandemic pay now, or ever."

Dias noted Loblaw "rightly" continued 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 applied to the Quebec-based chain as well.

Unifor, which represents some Metro and Loblaws employees, said it is leading efforts to make fair pay permanent after the pandemic.

Both Loblaw and Metro have been on the receiving end of praise for their pay increases, with labour advocates saying it was a progressive move to recognize the value of essential workers, who continued to work in grocery stores under a heightened potential of exposure to the virus.

Weston sent an email to Loblaw customers on Thursday explaining that situations in its grocery stores had stabilized and that he believed it was "the right time to end" the pay premium.

"We are confident our colleagues are operating safely and effectively in a new normal," he wrote.

Loblaw plans to dole out one-time bonuses totalling $25 million, after consulting with the UFCW, which Loblaw president Davis called "a rewarding conclusion for our team."

She said it would be paid to staff who worked shifts from March 8 to June 13 and will be about two weeks' worth of the premium pay based on average hours worked over those 14 weeks. Workers will be paid the bonus on their first July paycheque.

Metro will also pay its full-time employees an additional $200 bonus and part-time workers $100 by July 2, according to spokesperson Gregoire.

Loblaw and Metro did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the unions' reactions.

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