As an associate manager at a No Frills supermarket, Helen Stathopoulos rarely had to confront existential worries on the job. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
For two months, she and colleagues in north-end Toronto have faced daily risk of infection in one of the few environments where a locked-down populace routinely congregated in large numbers.
“When you go to work, you don’t know what you’re going to come up against,” said Sathopoulos, 41. “It would be a lie to say it doesn’t weigh on us. It does. You think about it all the time … Absolutely the fear is there.”
Indeed, the legions of grocery and pharmacy workers like her across Canada have been the unsung frontline workers of the pandemic, and their quotidian exposure to the public has had an impact.
As the epidemic slows and other retailers begin to open, the anxiety has lessened. Meanwhile, health-care workers have definitely been the hardest hit by the coronavirus, with thousands sickened.
But based on union estimates and statistics provided by some companies, at least 500 food-retail and pharmacy employees throughout Canada have tested positive and several have died from the disease.
For many shoppers, as well, doing the groceries has been a stressful activity, with some pointing to such stores as the source of their own infections.
One Toronto man posted on Facebook that the only place he could have caught COVID-19 was a supermarket that’s been closed for several days because of an outbreak among staff. He says his immune-compromised wife also contracted the disease, eventually winding up in intensive care.
But it remains unclear to what extent supermarkets have contributed to the community spread of COVID-19, frustrating experts trying to track how the virus disseminates.
“The data are not being collected in a systematic way to be able to determine many potential sources of transmission in the community,” said Dr. Jeff Kwong, a family physician and public-health professor at the University of Toronto. “We have the category ‘Close contact of a confirmed case’ but that doesn’t tell us if the contact occurred at home or at work, and the type of work involved.”
Union and company representatives argue that protective measures implemented early on in the pandemic — from limiting the number of customers in stores to installing Plexiglas shields for cashiers — have been generally effective in keeping both employees and customers safe.
In some ways, the pandemic has even been a boon for a workforce that earns relatively little and has seen full-time jobs dwindle, said one union leader.
This COVID-19 has allowed us to highlight the importance of these workers
More than 80 per cent of grocery employees work part-time, but demand in the now-booming sector has brought full-time hours for many, said Chris MacDonald, assistant to the president of Unifor, which represents about 13,000 supermarket employees.
“All of a sudden, retail workers are making decent money,” he said. “There are things that change the game for retail workers. They all got more hours … This COVID-19 has allowed us to highlight the importance of these workers, the necessity of their work.”
That said, some have suffered as a result of the pandemic.
Loblaws Inc, which has almost 200,000 employees in 2,500 supermarkets and Shoppers Drug Mart outlets, said 204 of them have tested positive for COVID-19.
Metro Inc. posts details of infections and the stores or warehouses where they occurred on its website, and as of Wednesday reported 117 COVID-19-postive employees.
Sobeys Inc. has a similar online record of employee infections, listing 79, plus “numerous” workers at one store in Lévis, Que., during a broader community outbreak last month.
Walmart Canada reports that 73 of its associates have contracted the virus and one has died.
Representatives of Costco Canada, Rexall and Pharmasave did not respond to requests for similar information.
Barry Sawyer, a top official with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents 160,000 food-retail members, said “less than 10” of them have died from COVID-19.
Many others, though, have paid a psychological price, said Wayne Hanley, president of the UFCW local representing Toronto-area grocery workers.
“It’s all about … the stress that’s brought on by the unknown when going to work, whether or not all their colleagues are going to be there,” he said. “Are they going to contract the virus on that particular shift … We’re concerned about their mental health as time goes on.”
Still, unions say the companies have worked positively with them to put in place protections, and in many cases boost pay by two dollars an hour.
What makes it worthwhile coming to work if you can earn 500 bucks staying at home
That willingness to help may have come partly from self-interest, given workers could have chosen to stay home instead and receive the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit, said MacDonald.
“They needed to figure out … how do you make it worthwhile for these people who often are making a couple of dollars over minimum wage at best,” he said. “What makes it worthwhile coming to work if you can earn 500 bucks staying at home.”
For Stathopoulos, the pandemic has also been a chance to observe people during an historic crisis, from the initial panic that led to hoarding of items like toilet paper to those who selflessly picked up groceries for elderly neighbours.
“You’ve seen the best of humanity and the worst of humanity, all at the same time.”