Starting this week, staff at Walmart Canada’s largest distribution centre will face a “wellness check” before their shifts that includes having their temperature taken and answering questions about possible COVID-19 symptoms.
The new procedure will be introduced at the facility in Mississauga and roll out to the company’s other warehouses and stores across the country in the coming weeks. Any employee with a temperature above 38 degrees will be sent home with pay.
“It’s one thing [employees] have been asking for," said Walmart Canada’s senior vice-president of logistics, John Bayliss. “It’s a measure we think is going to make our associates feel safe, and will protect them as they come to work.”
Protective measures are important not only because they can help prevent the spread of the virus, but also contribute to maintaining staffing levels: Employees who feel safe are more likely to come to work. Visible measures reassure customers as well.
“Every week there’s a new procedure that seems extreme, and two weeks later it seems obvious and normal,” said Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer of Restaurant Brands International Inc., the parent company of Tim Hortons. The coffee-and-doughnuts chain purchased roughly 15,000 infrared thermometers to introduce checks for staff, and is continuing to source masks.
A few locations are testing a new method of putting lids on coffee cups, using a plastic ring that fits over the top so that Tim Hortons staff are not touching the lid as they press it down on to a cup. It’s not yet clear whether that will become a widespread procedure.
As the effects of the pandemic continue, retailers are reassessing on a daily basis their decisions about how to protect employees and customers.
Over the weekend, the T&T supermarket chain announced it would begin voluntary temperature checks for customers. Its parent company, Loblaw Cos. Ltd., does not currently plan to roll out the measure at its other grocery banners, spokesperson Catherine Thomas said in an e-mail, adding that T&T is independently operated. Loblaw is conducting voluntary temperature monitoring for staff at its other grocery stores, as well as distribution centres and Shoppers Drug Mart locations.
Metro Inc., which has also implemented temperature checks at its distribution centres, has a pandemic committee that meets every morning to discuss changes that may be needed.
“The standards change day in and day out,” said Louisa Furtado, Metro’s vice-president of health and safety.
The grocer recently began offering its store employees the option of wearing plastic face shields. The shields were needed because masks have been difficult to come by, Ms. Furtado said. Retailers offering face masks to their staff say they have been careful to source non-medical-grade options to avoid straining supplies for health care workers.
“In the past month, the largest amount of e-mails I’ve gotten were from fly-by-night companies offering us masks. Companies you’ve never heard of before,” said Stéphane Trudel, senior vice-president of operations at Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc.
The company began working a few weeks ago to buy masks from trusted suppliers, even while some public-health officials in Canada were not yet recommending masks as a protective measure.
“To source a sufficient number of masks for our employees, required a lot of lead time. Even though we haven’t changed our policy and we’re not requiring masks, we’re slowly getting them into our supply chain to get ready for a time when we’re forced to do it,” Mr. Trudel said. The way policies have been changing, he expects such a requirement could arise suddenly. “If you’re not ready to [comply], then you might not be in business.”
For its part, RBI can also glean some information from its other restaurant brands in other markets. For example, Burger King locations in China are scanning guests for their temperatures. For deliveries, both store staff and delivery people sign a paper attached to each order attesting to having their temperatures scanned. RBI locations in North America are not there yet, but “everything is on the table,” Mr. Fulton said.
McDonald’s Canada has scaled back its menu, removing items such as McGriddles, salads and bagel sandwiches. The changes are designed to enable more physical distancing in its kitchens: The items that have been temporarily dropped require more than one step to prepare, or require staff to move around and cross paths.
Dollarama Inc. has faced criticism from some employees who contend that it has not introduced safety measures quickly enough. For example, some Dollarama locations have resorted to fashioning barriers out of cellophane wrap despite many grocery stores across Canada installing Plexiglass shields at checkouts weeks ago. Some Dollarama employees have also publicly complained about not having access to masks. About half the chain’s locations now have shields installed, and the rest should be completed this week, spokesperson Lyla Radmanovich said. The company is now also offering masks to employees.
“They’ve been slow to act,” said Mostafa Henaway, a community organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal, which has been advocating for safer conditions for workers at Dollarama’s distribution centre in Montreal, and has recently been in touch with store employees as well.
“Measures are continuously evaluated and implemented based on evolving public-health directives, and Dollarama has received positive feedback from public-health officials and inspectors across the country,” Ms. Radmanovich said.
As retailers make changes, they must consider what employees want, while ensuring the measures are actually effective protection. One example is gloves: While they make some employees feel secure, they still need to be changed frequently in order to be sanitary. Many offer gloves as an option for staff, not a requirement.
Companies are now looking to the future, to determine what the “new normal” will look like once restrictions begin to be lifted. Things such as contactless options for food delivery and grocery pickup, and some degree of physical distancing are expected to continue. People may be slow to regain their former comfort with the close proximity of store lineups, for example.
“Those protective barriers at the cash, I wouldn’t be surprised if they stay up for a while,” Couche-Tard’s Mr. Trudel said. “In the past couple of weeks we’ve started to think about coming out of the crisis, in terms of how customer behaviour might change ... and how we can adapt ourselves.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.