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A Sobeys on Danforth Avenue in Toronto, on April 15, 2020. Empire Company, which owns grocery chain Sobeys and others, confirmed Thursday that it is paying bonuses to employees in Toronto, Ontario’s Peel Region and Manitoba.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

One of Canada’s largest grocers has reinstated pay bonuses for some front-line workers in regions where governments have mandated a new round of pandemic lockdowns, beginning with Manitoba and parts of Ontario.

Empire Company Ltd. Empire Company Limited, which owns grocery chains Sobeys, Safeway, FreshCo, IGA and others, confirmed Thursday that it is paying bonuses to employees in Toronto and Ontario’s Peel Region, as well as in Manitoba. Those jurisdictions are under lockdown again in a bid to control a surge of new COVID-19 cases. The bonuses took effect Nov. 12 in Manitoba and Monday in the Ontario regions. They will be paid every two months.

The country’s largest grocery retailers faced significant backlash in the spring when they all decided to cut bonuses they’d introduced during the pandemic’s first wave. Walmart Inc. did away with its pay bonuses on May 31, and Loblaw Companies Ltd., Metro Inc. and Empire all announced the end of theirs on June 11 and 12.

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In July, senior executives at Loblaw, Empire and Metro were all called before a parliamentary committee to defend their decisions. At the time, Empire CEO Michael Medline said the company would reinstate bonuses if lockdowns happened again.

Empire put its first bonuses in place on March 8, dubbing the program “Hero Pay.” It gave employees $50 extra each week for those working 20 hours or less and an additional $2 an hour after that. The new program, which is also a temporary measure, will pay employees an additional $10 to $100 per week, depending on the number of hours worked.

“Our teammates continue to work tirelessly to keep our stores safe and our communities fed,” Mr. Medline wrote in a statement Thursday. “Launching the Lockdown Bonus, in the face of new government mandated lockdowns, was simply the right thing to do.”

Empire estimates the new bonuses may cost as much as $5-million per quarter based on current lockdowns.

The hearings in July were the result of a motion by Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. The executives faced questions about the timing of their announcements regarding the end of the wage premiums. Mr. Erskine-Smith said at the time that he wanted to ensure there was no collusion in those decisions. The Loblaw and Metro executives said they had communicated with their counterparts – to advise them of the decision or to ask about others’ approaches, respectively. However, all three grocery executives said they made their decisions independently and did not co-ordinate with one another.

Speaking at an online conference this week, however, Commissioner of Competition Matthew Boswell expressed “concern” about those communications.

“I want to take this opportunity to both reiterate that it is essential that all businesses remain cognizant of their obligations under the Competition Act and also to note that increasing collaboration amongst competitors carries a risk for businesses to continue down a slippery slope,” Mr. Boswell told the Grocery Innovations Canada 2020 conference. “Now more than ever, Canadians expect and deserve vigorous competition for their hard-earned money.”

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In a release on its website this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers union thanked Empire for bringing back the bonuses in Manitoba and said it would push for other retailers to do the same.

“Workers on the front lines of this pandemic need to be recognized during this critical time,” wrote Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Local 832.

A representative from Loblaw did not respond to questions about whether they are considering reinstating bonuses now that some jurisdictions are under new lockdowns. Metro declined to comment.

“We’re looking at the issue closely and we’re monitoring developments in various regions,” Walmart Canada spokesperson Adam Grachnik wrote in an e-mailed statement, adding that the company has offered other incentives to workers, such as “enhanced discount days” for store purchases, free access to telehealth appointments and mental-health support and counselling.

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