Many Retail Workers in Canada to Exit Industry Post-COVID-19 Amid Harsh Conditions: Expert

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He now works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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A new survey by the Conference Board of Canada indicates few front-line employees are being rewarded so far despite the fact those workers have become essential during the spread of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

“Essential or front-line employees in this survey are those who interact in person with the general public, and thus are considered more at risk. Although most organizations surveyed have implemented measures to ensure physical safety, such as extra cleanliness of work surfaces or physical barriers to protect their public-facing employees, few have provided additional premiums to reward for services so far,” said the board in its Working Through COVID-19 – Pay Premiums Survey.

The survey found that 21 percent of employers are providing pay premiums to non-unionized front-line employees, eight percent are considering it and 71 percent are not.

Nine out of 10 employers offering premiums are adding a fixed amount to employee pay. On average, employers are providing an additional $4.43 per hour worked.

PHOTO: CTV.CA

In a recent LinkedIn post, Suzanne Sears, President of Best Retail Careers International, said we recently lost a 48-year-old grocery worker in Ontario to COVID-19.

“I recall when the national dialogue over increased minimum wages generated comments from senior retail leaders who were outraged. We saw comments such as ‘No cashier is worth this much’ and ‘Wage raises will decimate retail’,” wrote Sears, who is retained primarily by retailers for private searches to fill roles from the Executive to Sales Clerk level.

“Well none of that happened. Now here we are. Do we still think front-line retail workers aren't worth a living wage? We owe them all a huge shout of gratitude that they are still showing up. Remember their sacrifices the next time the minimum wage goes up.”

In an interview with Retail Insider, Sears called those front-line workers heroes.

“It just staggers me how committed these people are to trying to keep these stores as clean as they possibly can, helping people follow the distancing rules. I overheard one cashier saying she had worked 12 hours a day from Monday to Friday. It’s just astounding to me that these people are willing to put themselves at risk whatsoever,” explained Sears.

PHOTO: GLOBAL NEWS

“I think in terms of the public perception, what used to be a not highly respected role in the community, or in the retail food chain, has suddenly escalated to we need to have a national front-line workers day for retailers because it’s just amazing that they’re willing to do it. You’ll find in the big box players and the grocery players a lot of these folks are actually far older than in-fashion retail and small retail. And they’re still willing to go do it with no complaints. With a smile on their face with people coughing on them. It’s remarkable. I can only guess that this is what it must have been like during the war when people pulled together.”

But on the flip side, those companies that have not stepped up and supported their workers, Sears said she’s been hearing from those workers every day. She’s receiving resumes every day looking at the future. They don’t want to go back to retail.

“So it’s basically turned into an all or nothing. Either your brand stepped up and you’re proud and you want to return or your brand didn’t step up and support the workers. Just kind of blew them off. They have no intentions of going back,” said Sears. “So I don’t think a recovery, whenever that is, is as simple as okay the doors are open now.

“The issue is going to be that retail has suffered a tremendous blow to its reputation by forcing people to work when they didn’t want to probably as much as three weeks ago. I am astounded how many people have indicated ‘I’ll go back to work but not in retail’.”

PHOTO: WALMART

“It’s my perception based on what I’m hearing that roughly 20 per cent of retail workers in Canada today do not intend to return to the jobs they had before.”

Diane J. Brisebois, President and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada, said employers of front-line essential workers have for the most part been diligent in protecting their front-line employees.

“To support them, to provide whatever services they need to both stay healthy and to stay safe. But we continue to obviously be concerned because they’re front-line so they’re taking risks and that’s the reason why we are working very closely with all levels of government to really push the message out that people should not be shopping if they are ill and they should not be going to a grocery store or a drugstore or an essential service retailer with family. They should be shopping alone because that’s the only way that we’ll be able to protect both customers and employees,” said Brisebois. “It continues to be priority number one for our essential retailers.”

Indeed, an online job platform, has noticed a recent spike in job searches for companies like Walmart, Amazon and large Canadian grocers.

For every 10,000 job searches made by Canadians on its site, the number for Walmart of 169 peaked on March 21 which was an increase of 374 per cent from the February average of 36. For Amazon, it peaked on March 17 with 63 which was a spike of 303 per cent from the February average of 16. And for large Canadian grocers it peaked March 23 with 108 for an increase of 173 per cent from the February average of 40.

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