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A plexiglass barrier is pictured creating a barrier to protect a cashier at a grocery store in North Vancouver, B.C. on March 22, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Major Canadian labour leaders say they will push to permanently improve pay and working conditions for grocery store clerks, personal support care workers, fast-food employees and others with jobs deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While most Canadians are staying home, those keeping the country running smoothly - and facing a greater risk of infection - are people working jobs that traditionally have been the lowest paid with few benefits.

Unifor National President Jerry Dias says there will have to be a “reboot of the mindset” towards these front-line jobs “that have always been deemed quasi-unskilled" but are crucial to keeping society operating during the outbreak.

“There has to now be an understood respect for what these jobs contribute to all of us,” Mr. Dias said. “We have to rethink pay and working conditions now that we’re calling them essential services.”

The next time there is a debate about increasing the minimum wage, Canada Pension Plan and Quebec Pension Plan benefits or mandating paid sick-leave days, Mr. Dias said he will remind government and business leaders of the role played by workers in these roles during the pandemic.

Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff said whether it is grocery clerks or fast food employees or personal support workers, "Canadians as a whole have really taken this group of workers for granted for the longest time.”

Mr. Yussuff said the pandemic has exposed the problems faced by personal support or home-care workers, who look after elderly or disabled people but are not employed for enough hours for it to count as a full-time job.

“Personal care workers are a good example. Their hours are completely erratic,” he said. “These workers are doing three or four jobs because one job is not enough to look after their family," Mr. Yussuff said. “They’re putting these jobs together to make a whole job."

“If this is such an important job - taking care of our aged parents - then why can’t these jobs be better regulated?," the CLC president said.

Ken Neumann, Canadian director of United Steelworkers, said the labour movement will be pushing for reforms in seniors’ homes and nursing homes. “We have failed in society to give these essential workers the tools to earn a decent living and to work in a healthy and safe environment.”

Mr. Dias said the working conditions and low pay have driven personal support workers out of the industry. Workers in Ontario’s long-term care homes face unreasonable demands, he said, such as only having six minutes, on average, to get each resident ready for the day. “If these jobs are so essential they should be treated as such," the union leader said.

In recent weeks, employers in many industries - including food processing, security, restaurants and the laundry sector - have negotiated temporary pay premiums, additional paid sick days and other measures.

Loblaws, for example, announced last month it would temporarily increase compensation for employees by about 15 per cent “in recognition of their outstanding and ongoing efforts keeping our stores open and operating so effectively.” The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada union said that increase worked out to a raise of $2-per hour for front-line employees.

Canadians will not support rolling back these temporary increases after the threat of COVID-19 has faded, labour leaders say.

After the pandemic, Paul Meinema, national president of UFCW Canada said he hopes "collectively, people will look at these jobs in a whole different manner” and this will “give us the ability to negotiate better pay and benefits” on a permanent basis for workers.

“If we can do these things in a time of crisis, we should be able to do these things when companies are at their utmost profitability and when the economy is doing well."

He said not only do grocery clerks face a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, but employees in food processing plants work very close to each other on the assembly line. “We have plants that have 1,800 people working in them and you might have 900 people on your shift in your department," Mr. Meinema said.

“There’s a whole societal change that will come, I hope.”

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