Skip to main content

Andrew Spielman, 28, has been a produce clerk at Real Canadian Superstore in Airdrie, Alta., for 10 years.Dave Chidley/The Globe and Mail

As a grocery store employee in Airdrie, Alta., Andrew Spielman has witnessed the best and the worst of the human spirit since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than 16 months ago.

Not since the catastrophic 2013 Alberta floods has the produce clerk, who’s worked at Loblaws-owned Real Canadian Superstore for 10 years, felt such uncertainty over what to expect each day.

“Everybody was freaking out and in a panic, and we weren’t even considered essential workers then,” Mr. Spielman, 28, says about the worst flooding in the province’s history.

“But it’s nothing like the pandemic. Last year for a good while, we didn’t have much on the shelves. The grocery aisles were wiped because people were panic buying.”

From the pandemic’s outset, Mr. Spielman and other Canadian grocery store staff were deemed essential along with health care, police, fire department and other workers. But many front-line food-industry members now feel the days of being hailed for their dedication are waning as vaccination rates rise, COVID-19 case numbers drop and emotions cave to pandemic “fatigue.”

Customers were “really good and appreciative at the start,” says Mr. Spielman. “Everyone was saying, ‘Thank you for coming in, thanks for working,’ but that kind of went away fairly quickly.

“I’ve heard, ‘We went from being heroes to zeroes,’ and that’s exactly how a lot of us have felt.”

Isabella Hartwell, a 21-year-old part-time cashier at a Metro-owned Food Basics in Windsor, Ont., was just ending her maternity leave when the World Health Organization declared the pandemic in March, 2020.

“At the beginning there were a lot of customers who were super appreciative and would thank you every time,” says Ms. Hartwell, a six-year employee and mom of a two-year-old girl.

“Now, people are more kind of fed up with a lot of the rules, like if we tell them not to take off their masks or that we have to clean the [checkout conveyor] belt, they say, ‘This is ridiculous. I have places to be.’ I say, ‘OK, we have rules – I don’t know what to tell you.’ ”

Both Mr. Spielman and Ms. Hartwell recall trying to come to grips with the early days of the pandemic, before masking, social distancing, hand sanitizing, Plexiglas and other barriers were put in place to separate cashiers from customers in response to public health safety mandates.

Even with these measures, grocery stores across Canada reported COVID-19 outbreaks, mostly linked to outside sources. The plight of the grocery store employee was driven home in March, 2020, with the death of a man in his 40s in Oshawa, Ont., at the time the youngest Canadian victim of the virus.

Many North American grocers topped the wages of employees, among the lowest paid of front-line workers, with “hero pay.” But wage stipends (commonly $2 an hour and sometimes “appreciation” pay) largely ended after just a couple of months.

Ms. Hartwell knows of workers who left their grocery store jobs because it was better financially to take advantage of government pandemic benefits, but she stuck it out. As recently as late May, her store was rewarding staff with gift cards. But for Ms. Hartwell, work is more than perks and a paycheque.

“I have a family dynamic with a lot of people I work with. Everyone is awesome,” she says. “Even when I was pregnant, they were all very much supportive. And since I began working there, I met my boyfriend, and we call our daughter our Food Basics baby.”

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada, the union representing more than 140,000 retail grocery workers, says they still aren’t properly paid and face safety issues. The union says it will continue to press for stricter labour standards and oversight for the sector.

Early into the pandemic, retailers including Loblaw Cos. Ltd., which owns about 2,400 supermarkets and pharmacies across Canada, and Metro, with 950 food and 650 drug stores in Quebec and Ontario, began identifying the stores with confirmed employee COVID-19 cases on their websites.

Metro continues to list case details online. The company website says it “actively monitors the situation, works to minimize risks and has implemented pro-active measures to protect the safety and health of its employees, while ensuring that they receive the support they need.”

Loblaws stopped posting COVID-19 worker cases on July 1, as “there has been a significant decrease in cases at our stores and across the country,” Catherine Thomas, the company’s senior director of external communication, says in an e-mail.

“There is a very low risk to both customers and colleagues,” and Loblaws “will continue to monitor local conditions and work with public health teams to ensure the safety of those who work or shop at our locations,” she adds.

Ms. Thomas says Loblaws continues “to appreciate everything our team has done throughout the pandemic,” and has paid “hundreds of millions in pay and bonuses for our front-line colleagues.”

Mr. Spielman and Ms. Hartwell say they’ve felt fully supported by their stores’ staff and unions, but have concerns about acting as “mask police” and facing unruly shoppers.

Mr. Spielman is immune system compromised and his girlfriend, a health-care worker, contracted COVID-19 in December. While wearing a mask and social distancing are musts for him, he has faced his share of customer “agitators” who don’t follow the rules.

“I was stocking bananas one day, and the other side of the table had bananas everywhere,” he recalls. “This lady comes up to me and started reaching in, and I said, ‘Excuse me, I’d like a bit of social distancing,’ and she just reached around me and grabbed in, and said, ‘I don’t believe in [expletive] social distancing,’ and I said, ‘Thank you for your language. Have a great day.’

“I deal with it because I’ve always, from an early age, been taught to treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Hassan Yussuff, recently retired president of the Canadian Labour Congress and now a senator, said in a radio interview in late June, 2021, that the pandemic revealed how “vulnerable” front-line grocery and other workers could be.

“Everybody said, ‘These people were heroes,’ but the reality since that moment and today is we’ve got a long way to go to recognize them as heroes and treat them as heroes.”

As the corner turns on the pandemic in Canada, both Mr. Spielman, who’s fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and Ms. Hartwell, who has yet to get her first shot, worry about the relaxing of safety efforts.

For instance, Alberta recently lifted nearly all its remaining COVID-19 restrictions, including no more limits on people in stores, and dropping the mask mandate for indoor gatherings. Mr. Spielman says he’s already noticed “it’s half and half with customers masking. Our store manager and her assistant store managers are choosing not to wear masks.”

“It’s rather sad to see so soon.”

The pandemic has, however, prompted both Mr. Spielman and Ms. Hartwell to want to help people. Ms. Hartwell is now studying to become a personal support worker (PSW); Mr. Spielman may look into a career in social work or a full-time union job.

“My whole fight with the mask thing kind of opened my eyes,” he says. “I want to be a voice for people.”