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OPINION: Grocers stepped up – let’s applaud that!

Diane J. Brisebois isPresident & CEO ofRetail Council of Canada

With the issue sparking debate and with an upcoming hearing at the House of Commons Industry Committee, it is time for some myth-busting about recognition pay in Canada’s grocery sector.

I want to begin by addressing the misconception that recognition pay in grocery was related primarily to safety concerns. I can’t speak to decisions made by individual grocers but industry-wide, health and safety issues were (and continue to be) addressed head-on by the spending of huge sums on personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies, on the installation of Plexiglass shields, on signage and markings, on the adaptation of stores and websites to support increased curbside activity, to name but a few of the measures adopted by Canada’s grocers.

The success of that industry-led and financed effort is evidenced every time you visit a grocery store and by the low incidence of cases among grocery staff. Proportionally, COVID-19 cases among grocery staff are lower than in the population as a whole and, indeed, lower than in the working-age population as a whole.  The grocery industry has shown the way on how to operate safely in a retail environment, one that has since been followed by other retailers as they have reopened or revamped operations.

What was recognition pay about then? It was about the extraordinary expectations that increased consumer demand placed on grocery staff, who were being called upon to take on unaccustomed roles in cleaning and sanitization, in directing customers, in re-configuring aisles, in unloading shipments and re-stocking shelves at an unprecedented pace. Many members of those teams were asked to work unfamiliar roles, over extended shifts, and that extraordinary effort is what called for recognition bonuses. Such pay was provided not only to those in customer-facing roles but also to staff in distribution centres, transportation and back-office and support functions, further underlining the point that this was about increased and shifting workload—not about health risk.

This was indeed the federal government’s own rationale when it promised on April 15 to bring in a wage boost – and here I quote directly from the Prime Minister’s press release – “for those working so hard to make sure that there is food on our shelves and tables”.

Frankly, the federal government didn’t stick the landing on that. The only government to provide any such support to grocery workers during the worst period of COVID-19 disruption was the solo effort of the Government of Quebec.  Almost two months later, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have, to their credit, taken up that program but those moves came late in the crisis.

It is an interesting observation that government could not follow-through fully on its own plan to provide a temporary pay boost in grocery and that by contrast, grocers stepped up right away and delivered in full.

As the reopening of retail nationwide will attest, the workload situation is now substantially changed from what we saw in March, April and early-May. Grocery foot traffic and sales volumes are trending back to pre-COVID-19 levels. With returning employees and new hires, our workforce is now closer to full-strength again. Roles have normalized and shifts are mostly of normal length. A host of preventative measures have been adopted and we are all now transitioning into recovery while not letting our guard down against the receding pandemic.

It is also worthy of note that while other sectors were laying off employees, grocers not only strove to retain their employees, but hired thousands more who had lost work elsewhere. I must say that we at Retail Council of Canada (RCC) find it odd that a grocery sector that has made every effort to keep its workforce whole, has hired those who needed work and has paid recognition bonuses—unlike almost any other industry—is being called into question by some.

And while we are on the subject of misplaced commentary, we have heard a number of statements about grocery having substantially increased sales during COVID-19, some of which seem to imply that was a windfall or somehow unmerited, so let’s break that one down a bit.

For three months, while much of the economy was shut down by public order, our grocers made sure they could put food on people’s tables, provided prescription drugs that Canadians need and made available the cleaners, sanitizers and household paper that helped keep people safe. Grocers significantly increased purchases from Canadian farmers and producers at the very time others were pulling back.

The increased food demand was driven by the publicly-ordered shutdown of dine-in restaurants, of food courts, of school cafeterias, of workplace catering, of travel and tourism. Obviously, in that context, people were eating more at home than before and that drove increased sales as, in the early days, did a notable hoarding instinct.

It is easy now to forget the concerns widely expressed in March and April as to whether there would be sufficient food or household products on our shelves. Our grocers’ teams met that challenge, working extraordinarily long hours as noted above, reworking and, in some cases, reinventing normal supply and operational processes, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on PPE and adaptation of stores and hundreds of millions more on recognition pay.

The grocers did this on their own—they lead the way, logistically and financially and, in fact, helped governments form policies that protected staff and customers and helped inform how all retail would move forward

The food demand situation has normalized as other parts of the economy have reopened but it strikes us as odd that there would be any negative inference drawn about grocers doing the very thing that they were asked to do, which was to keep Canadians fed in what were extremely challenging circumstances and to keep staff and customers safe.

Grocers didn’t have to do many of the things they did—they chose to do so because they believed it was the right thing to do. Let’s applaud that!

Diane J. Brisebois is president and CEO at Retail Council of Canada


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