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Shoppers line up outside a Loblaws grocery store in Toronto on March 20, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Grocery stores are stepping up their efforts to hire temporary workers to cope with a surge in demand on store services as a result of the new coronavirus.

This week, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. set up a new website, loblawjobs.ca, specifically dedicated to recruiting temporary employees, which had thousands of visits in the first 24 hours as people in other sectors have found themselves laid off. On Friday, Walmart Canada announced that it is looking to hire 10,000 people immediately at both its stores and distribution centres. Metro Inc. has called on former summer student workers and retired employees, and has asked staff to refer potential hires. And Sobeys parent Empire Company Ltd. has launched a campaign online to advertise to applicants.

Sobeys to install plexiglass barriers at checkouts as grocers work to stay open amid coronavirus outbreak

Retailers say they have seen a number of pressures on their operations. Online ordering for either home delivery or “click-and-collect" pickup has increased significantly, creating delays for services such as Loblaw’s PC Express app and Metro Inc.’s home delivery in Toronto and parts of Quebec. Walmart Canada shipped the most e-commerce packages in its history last weekend. Both in stores and online, shoppers – who have been encouraged to stay at home and practise social distancing – have been stocking up on food, cleaning products and other items. That means companies’ distribution centres are processing more orders from suppliers to ship to stores, and store staff are working to restock depleted shelves.

While other stores have been shutting down, grocery stores are considered an essential service – so in order to stay open while protecting employees and customers, staff have been asked to clean stores much more frequently and thoroughly.

All of this has been coupled with the fact that some regular employees have been unavailable to work, either because they are self-isolating or have been told to isolate; or because they have to stay home to take care of children as schools and daycares close down. Staff who are at work are dealing with busier stores, more tasks, customers who are stressed, and their own stress as they experience daily contact with the public during a pandemic – leaving them in danger of burnout.

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Many stores have also reduced opening hours to provide some relief.

“We have overtime [pay], but it has its limits,” said Metro spokesperson Marie-Claude Bacon. “People are getting tired, and it’s not sustainable. Whether it’s in the [distribution centres] or in our supply chain or at store level, in all of our operations people are putting more hours.”

Metro has asked the government for some flexibility, such as automatically renewing visas for foreign workers in some cases; allowing foreign students to work 40 hours per week instead of 24; and allowing unemployed people to earn 40 per cent more income than their unemployment insurance instead of 20 per cent more.

Metro has also contacted companies that have recently had temporary layoffs to inquire about sharing staff, with a particular focus on those with distribution centres, such as retailer Simon’s in Quebec, and Honda in Ontario. Sobeys has been making similar efforts with companies such as takeout chain Freshii.

“We haven’t seen, so far, that many people saying they don’t want to come to work, this is not safe. ... Most employees are working. But the increase in demand is creating a lot of problems," said Sobeys chief human resources officer, Simon Gagne. “The community of employers are reaching out to each other, trying to organize themselves.”

Sobeys has been speeding up its training period, from about 72 hours to 24, to get new hires on the floor more quickly.

Loblaw has moved some of staff from its Joe Fresh apparel stores, which are closed, to the grocery banners, and is also talking to other companies.

“We’ve reached out to the retail industry, and to many large employers who have been impacted," Mark Wilson, head of human resources for Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart, said in a statement. "If there are people looking to be employed and paid right now, maybe we can help each other out.”

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