Ty Harasemow has worked in grocery stores for over a decade, and until now his biggest concern during a shift might have been stocking shelves.
Now, when he steps into Nelson’s Save-On-Foods location, Harasemow is surrounded by reminders he is suddenly an essential service worker in the middle of a global pandemic.
“We are working the front lines. None of us really know if we’re going to get sick…,” said Harasemow.
“To be perfectly honest, we’re taking our precautions. We are so diligent in this store I don’t believe any of our hands can take sanitizer much longer.”
Grocery stores are among the few places people are allowed, out of necessity, to gather. But for employees, many of whom are working for minimum wage, the realities of COVID-19 were not something they signed up for.
Harasemow, a head shop steward representing UFCW 1518 and the approximately 150 employees at the Nelson store, said many of his coworkers deal with some level of panic daily. Others, he added, are more relaxed.
“I don’t want to take away from the fact that yes, there is added stress being so congregated in our store, trying to abide by these rules that we’re socially applying to our customers, and actually fulfill them ourselves while still conducting a business. That’s proven problematic and stressful.”
UFCW 1518 represents workers at stores including Save-On, Safeway and IGA. In Nelson, the changes made at Save-On and Safeway are quickly apparent to customers. Carts are wiped down and hands sanitized at the door. Tape on the floors show how close to stand to others, and which direction to walk in. Plexiglass separates the till from the buyer.
Harasemow says his co-workers and union are generally content with the safety measures introduced by the company, and that he’s impressed by how quickly changes were made in March when lockdowns in B.C. began.
He added Save-On and the union also agreed to a raise of $2 per hour, retroactive to the beginning of March, as so-called hero’s pay during the pandemic.
“That just re-affirmed no types of political issues are going to [keep] us from working together as one right now, and that’s very good to see,” he said.
Dan Goodman, the secretary treasurer of UFCW 247 based in Surrey, mostly agrees with Harasemow’s characterization of union-company relations.
Goodman’s union represents 14,000 grocery store workers across B.C. at stores including No Frills, Extra Foods, Safeway and, in Nelson, the Wholesale Club. While he gives those companies credit for what they’ve done, Goodman also thinks the pandemic will change union expectations once bargaining resumes.
“I certainly think our members are going to be a lot stronger or less inhibited in telling the company how they feel about what their entitlement should be,” he said. “So I think it’s going to make things challenging at the bargaining table, for sure.”
The real issue the members of his union face, Goodman said, is with customers who aren’t respecting the rules or are perhaps becoming too comfortable in stores.
“I think they view the grocery store as a return to normalcy,” said Goodman. “I think people can’t go to a restaurant, you can’t do all these things you normally do in your every day life. You can’t send your kids to the park because it’s covered in yellow tape.
“So I think when they get into the stores, sometimes people forget, which I think is one of the reasons why they are going to the store too much. It’s an excuse to get out and forget about everything going on. They forget about that distance, they forget about having to wait or walk around somebody.”
What that’s meant, Goodman says, is a re-evaluation of a capitalist motto: the customer is always right. Younger staff have had an easier time asserting themselves, he said, while some more experienced staff have been reticent to express their needs with customers.
“We’re telling our members that when someone is in your space, you need to turn to them and say you need to give me my two metres,” he said.
“You have the right to do that, because ultimately you have the right to a safe workplace. So I think that’s been a bit of a challenge. That’s a whole new role, a whole new aspect that probably wasn’t there before.”
And it may not be one experienced in every store.
Harasemow said he’s been touched by how often customers have showed his colleagues patience and gratitude for doing a difficult job in trying times.
“So that’s the biggest thing I have to show appreciation for…,” he said. “We’re all on the same team here, we all want to be on the same page.”