Hamilton

'We're not heroes anymore:' Maple Leaf Foods workers upset to see pandemic pay end

Maple Leaf Foods will discontinue the $80 weekly pandemic bonus as of July

Posted: July 02, 2020

Maple Leaf Foods will end its pandemic pay bonus as of July. (CBC)

Maple Leaf Foods workers in Hamilton are "furious" to see their pandemic pay bump end despite the COVID-19 pandemic continuing.

Chris Bernardi and his co-workers at the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Hamilton say it is a swift change from how they felt in March.

"At the start, they gave us T-shirts that said 'Not all heroes wear capes' and we really loved those shirts. When we got them we felt, 'OK, they really appreciate us,'" Bernardi, the plant's chief union steward with United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 175, told CBC News.

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"Now it just doesn't feel like we're heroes anymore. They're saying we're not worth [an extra] $2 an hour."

Chris Bernardi, the chief union steward at the Hamilton Maple Leaf Foods facility, said he used to proudly wear this shirt given to him by his employer. Now, he's returning it in protest of the company's decision to stop the pandemic pay bonus to employees. (Submitted by Chris Bernardi)

Bernardi said when he heard the pandemic pay was ending at the end of June, it didn't make sense to him.

"What went through my mind was 'The pandemic is not over.' We were told we're still in danger, so I don't know why we're not getting the pay," he said.

"If we're not to receive the pandemic pay, it means we shouldn't be in danger anymore, so if we're not in danger, why do we have to follow all the policies, wear the PPE, go through body scanners?"

Janet Riley, the company's vice-president of communications and public affairs, told CBC News in a statement that employees knew the pandemic pay would end come June.

"In March, when we originally announced our weekly bonus payment, we had committed to providing it through the end of April ...  We extended the weekly bonus through May, and in late May, we announced an additional and final extension through June," she wrote.

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"At this point, our screening procedures, our personal protective equipment and our plants have been fully transformed and we are entering our 'new normal' phase. Although the weekly bonus is ending, we will continue to offer our competitive wages and benefits to all of our team members."

Bernardi said fellow workers have considered not attending their shifts and not following COVID-19 protocol to protest, but he persuaded them not to do that.

"I understand, but your life isn't worth $2 an hour, and that will come with discipline because this is the employer's policy," he explained.

Instead, they returned their 'hero' shirts to send a message.

Chris Bernardi and other Maple Leaf Foods workers returned their 'hero' shirts after the company ended pandemic pay bonuses. (Submitted by Chris Bernardi)

"My employer has done a great job throughout this … It's sad that within one week they can take that all away," Bernardi said.

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As of Thursday, 72 of the roughly 13,000 staff across Maple Leaf Foods locations had tested positive for COVID-19. Eleven of the plants, including the Hamilton facility, experienced at least one confirmed positive case.

Maple Leaf Foods are among many other companies, including grocery store chains, to stop handing out pandemic pay bumps.

Front-line health-care workers have also complained about not receiving pandemic pay bonuses promised by the provincial government.