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Canada’s largest private-sector union, Unifor, is renewing its call for grocery retailers to bring back regular pay premiums for their essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic – and is criticizing Loblaw Cos. Ltd. for announcing a one-time “appreciation” payment instead.

Loblaw told employees on Friday that it will pay a one-time bonus in June to staff in its stores and distribution centres across Canada. But the amount – which ranges from $25 to $175 per worker, according to the union – is “chump change,” Unifor said in a release.

In addition to the payments, Loblaw is also planning to hold discount events for staff in its stores, and is offering up to three hours of paid time off for workers to get vaccinated, if they work in a location without a pharmacist on-site.

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“The bonuses will mean different things to different people, and will vary depending on hours worked in recent weeks,” Loblaw spokesperson Catherine Thomas wrote in a statement on Friday. “That said, this is about more than just a bonus, and we expect that, on average, the initiatives will amount to hundreds of dollars for colleagues.”

Last week, Unifor also criticized grocer Metro Inc. for its decision to distribute store gift cards ranging from $75 to $300 as a thank-you gesture to staff. The union has argued that grocers, who have been classified as essential retailers during the pandemic, should reinstate temporary hourly pay increases that they cut back last year.

Sobeys owner Empire Co. Ltd. recently announced it would reinstate bonuses of $10 to $100 a week for workers in areas where stay-at-home orders have been imposed. Those bonuses are in effect in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

“While there’s added stability in our business, that doesn’t mean life on the front lines is easy,” Loblaw president Sarah Davis wrote in a memo to staff on Friday. “We have heard your feedback and understand the struggle.”

Canada’s largest grocers have faced scrutiny over their pay practices for front-line workers during the pandemic, since they cut back hourly bonuses last summer.

In its statement, Unifor called Loblaw’s latest payment “paltry,” and pointed to the compensation paid to its top executives. In 2020, Loblaw executive chairman Galen G. Weston made $3.55-million and Ms. Davis made more than $6-million. Last month, the company announced that Ms. Davis is leaving Loblaw, and Mr. Weston will once again take the reins of the grocery chain. Those changes take effect this week.

Annual bonuses for both executives decreased in 2020 compared to 2019, because the company missed its earnings target for the year. Like other grocers, Loblaw’s revenue surged last year as restaurants were forced to close and Canadians cooked at home more often – but profit was affected by higher costs related to added safety measures and to fulfilling more e-commerce orders.

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