By Rechev Browne
As an essential grocery store worker, it was heart-wrenching when my company ended pandemic pay while the risk and the pandemic is still going on. Was two dollars an hour extra worth risking our lives?
For minimum wage workers getting $14 an hour, two dollars extra can do a lot more and go a long way. The reason we were getting the extra pay was because we were working in the midst of a pandemic, a public health crisis in which our labour in grocery stores is essential. This pandemic has not ended but somehow pandemic pay has ended. Are we no longer essential workers to our employer or we no longer heroes? What does a hero’s pay looks like? Aren’t heroes worth an extra two dollars?
The pandemic of low-wage work
Our company’s profits increased by 21% since the start of the pandemic. As we slowly begin to reopen and we go back to being low-wage workers, the forgotten heroes, I’m sure their profits will continue to soar. When I talk to my coworkers and see the look of disappointment on their faces in the company we work for it just breaks my heart. Many are concerned that the company doesn’t value their work. Many are wondering if the company just offered the pay increase to trick them into coming into work at the start of the pandemic so they wouldn’t stay home and self-isolate. The company knows that we earn low wages and they know what the extra pay could mean to us.
Pandemic pay meant a lot for workers. For me personally, it meant I was no longer living pay cheque to pay cheque. It meant that I was able to save some money, pay my bills on time and improve my credit score. Over the past few months of receiving pandemic pay I was finally able to pay off the rest of my 10 year student loan. How many more workers can relate to this? For workers it meant no longer struggling to pay bills, it meant being able to buy more groceries to feed their family while putting a little more money aside.
When talking to one of my coworkers, I asked how she felt when she heard we were going to receive $2 an hour extra in pandemic pay. She said, “I felt like it was not enough, we’re not only risking our health but also the health of our families and the people we live with.” Sandy, who is a part-time worker, said even the pandemic pay was not enough, because “for someone that works part-time the increase was just an extra $30 a paycheque, which can barely buy you groceries these days”.
The reality is that for part-time workers the $2 an hour extra might not go far enough. When I asked Sandy how she felt when they took it away, she said: “wait, they took it away, since when? It’s ridiculous that they took it away because last time I checked we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and cases are still increasing on a daily basis. We’re working in a grocery store and have to deal with so many customers a day so if one person has the virus and comes in there’s a high chance we will catch it because we don’t have proper PPE. Our health is at risk so they (the company) should at least still appreciate the work we are doing and continue to pay us more.”
As a community organizer I asked Sandy if she thinks the union or the government should step in or if she thinks we as workers should take it into our own hands and organize job action. She said, “I don’t think we have enough power as workers to change that; I think the union and the government should have a say and step in.” I asked Sandy why she thinks we don’t have enough power when we have public support she stated, “well that’s a good point , but I believe the union should continue to support grocery store workers. I thank them for getting us the pandemic pay to begin with, but with the union support and public support maybe the company will restore the pandemic pay and maybe things will change. And if the government both federally or provincially can step in and help us, I don’t see why they wouldn’t”.
Worker organizing and community solidarity
Our union fought with the company to get us the pandemic pay, and now that it has ended they continue to fight. They have asked the employers to do the right thing from the beginning and pay the workers a premium for the duration of the pandemic. The decision of the employers to discontinue the pandemic premium pay is very disappointing. In a recent statement our local union president stated, “our members stepped up during the height of the pandemic to ensure Ontario families were served and fed, and the company benefited from the workers dedication and courage. The reality is the pandemic still exists and our members are at risk of contracting COVID-19. We are disappointed by the employers’ decisions to discontinue the pandemic pay”.
We have also seen disappointment in the company from the public, and some costumers and public outcry to restore pandemic pay. While having a discussion with a weekly costumer at my store, Lori had this to say:
“What we have all experienced has clearly been a global pandemic and through all of this we have come to learn the true meaning of essential. Grocery stores have clearly been identified as an essential service that is required and to run these stores we all know that we need the manpower to operate in a safe and dedicated manner. I am learning that the pandemic pay has ended for essential grocery stores and I truly find this to be an unfortunate circumstance given that this pandemic is not over. We are now moving into a phase 2 approach, which means more people will be out and in my opinion puts our essential grocery store workers at greater risk with their day to day challenges. For example, many customers abide with the grocery store protocols of physical distancing, however, some have gone back to their old ways, and parade up and down each aisle without respecting the new safety measures. As a customer, I see the risk these workers face each and every day. They have had to work tirelessly to provide families the essential household needs and most importantly be flexible to help us through these surreal times. I strongly feel these essential grocery workers continue to put themselves and their families at risk, and by showing up to work each day is a true testament of their ongoing dedication. I feel that further consideration should be evaluated and these workers should be recognized for their ongoing commitment and dedication through the continuation of the pandemic pay.”
With the personal stories of workers who continue to work during this pandemic with now no pandemic pay, and with the disappointment not only from our union but also members from the public, my hope is that the company will restore pandemic pay to workers– not only for working, but for risking our health and the health of their loved ones. In a previous article in the beginning of the pandemic I stated that this pandemic should radicalize us and the inequality is so naked and the priorities of the system is so obvious. Now as we continue to live in the era of COVID-19, the more we see the need for workers to organize ourselves to stop our exploitation and shift the narratives to people/workers over profit to save our own lives.
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