When grocery stores are the only game in town, even entrepreneurs turn into employees
Leadership coaches, fashion designers jump at chance to deliver groceries, wash down produce
Canada's supermarkets are scooping up new staff, hiring steadily to meet the growing demand for their essential service at a time when everyone has to eat at home and many want their groceries delivered.
That need for more staff, combined with the staggering job losses in other parts of the Canadian economy, has resulted in new recruits who never imagined they'd be thrilled to wash down produce or deliver boxes of groceries.
"Thank God I accepted the job," said Richard Lyle, a 51-year-old fashion designer and boutique owner in Toronto who has been delivering groceries full-time since he was forced to close his own store.
"The money I'm making is allowing us to pay our mortgage, pay our property tax, pay our utilities and pay for our food."
Scott Graham of Brantford, Ont., normally runs his own company, teaching leadership and anti-bullying programs in schools across Canada — schools that have now moved their teaching online because of the coronavirus.
He's 57 but just started a new job in the produce department at Goodness Me!, an Ontario-based chain of 10 natural food markets.
"The manager was showing me how to keep celery alive, and he asked me if I've ever done anything like this before," said Graham. "I told him, 'Never.'"
His business normally brings in around $400,000 a year while his three-day-a-week grocery job pays $14 an hour. But Graham stresses that he sees the part-time job as his opportunity to give back to the community during a crisis.
He's already been able to bring some added value to the position, he says, using his own expertise.
"I was talking to one of the other managers today, and she said she's new in her role, she's starting to learn about leadership. I was able to give her a few tips."
Supermarkets can't afford to be choosy
In addition to the need for more staff to accommodate increased demand, maintain hygiene and service deliveries, supermarkets are also having to replace employees who are unable to work because of the coronavirus.
Some supermarket employees are ill with COVID-19 themselves or are caring for family members who've contracted the virus. Others are too afraid to go to work or are isolating at home because of potential exposure to the virus.
"We've had reports of a number of employees choosing to stay at home, especially following some of the payroll measures that were announced federally," said Diane Brisebois, president of the Retail Council of Canada, an organization that includes large supermarket chains and smaller independents among its members.
According to the last census, the grocery sector employs more than 400,000 people, and while it's hard to quantify how many more the industry needs at the moment, there is "absolutely" a growing need for more staff, Brisebois said.
Stores can't afford to be concerned about previous experience.
"Most grocers want to ensure that their employees are healthy, so that may mean adding more shifts so that people have time to re-energize, replenish and rest. That means more staff," she said.
WATCH | How essential employees such as grocery store workers are coping with the virus:
The risks the virus poses to any essential workers interacting with the public are real. Late last month, a 48-year old manager at a Real Superstore in Oshawa, Ont., became one of the youngest people in the province to succumb to the virus — although it's not clear where he contracted it.
In the U.S., the Washington Post reported on the weekend that more than 40 grocery store employees have died and more than 1,500 have tested positive.
In recognition of the added strain the pandemic has put on staff, Loblaw increased compensation for employees at its 2,500 stores and more than two dozen distribution centres by about 15 per cent last month, retroactive to March 8.
The temporary pay bump was intended to acknowledge employees' "outstanding and ongoing efforts keeping our stores open and operating so effectively," Galen Weston, executive chairman of the company, said in a statement, March 21, two days before the chain's first COVID-19 case was confirmed — at the Real Superstore in Oshawa, which is owned by Loblaw.
Sobeys also instituted a "hero pay program" retroactive to March 8, paying all employees an additional $50 a week as well as an additional $2 an hour premium for every hour above 20 hours week.
Mike Saysell, manager of Thrifty Foods in Duncan, B.C., says he's hired 37 new employees since March 10, many with no experience in the grocery business.
"We've had so many people come into our store and ask how they can help," he said. "They say, 'You guys are on the front line, we know you're in a high-traffic area with a lot of customers, and we want to help our neighbours.'
"They're not necessarily trying to bring their skills and experience; they're just bringing their desire to help. I couldn't be more proud of them."
Courtney Friesen, 27, is one of the new hires at Thrifty Foods. She had been working as a server at Duncan's York Street Diner for five years, but the restaurant shut down mid-March, when the province went into lockdown mode.
"I never imagined I'd work in a grocery store," she said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just have a strong passion for serving, and I've always done that and loved doing that."
New hires have safety concerns
Her first-day jitters at the new job weren't the usual ones about taking on unfamiliar duties. She was thinking about the risk of contracting the virus in a busy supermarket.
"Obviously, before coming to my first shift, there was a bit of worry. But when I got here, we went through all the safety protocols the store has in place, and now, I can honestly say I feel very safe coming here."
Sobeys is the parent company of Thrifty and, like many large chains, it has implemented safety measures that include limiting the number of people in the store, hand-washing for employees every 15 minutes, plexiglass shields for cashiers and extra staff to wipe down shopping carts.
Friesen says her parents are "totally OK" with her decision to keep working.
"We're just not spending time together because I'm a bit more exposed than they are, but they're super proud of me for taking this on and not staying at home and claiming EI."
Saysell says customers appreciate seeing familiar faces working in the store.
"It's such a small community that you know people as neighbours or from community events or the soccer fields," he said "We're hiring every week, and we're getting people from all walks of life. We need more heroes."
WATCH | Some grocery workers fed up with customers ignoring social distancing:
Ego not an issue
Lyle and his partner, Jennifer Halchuk, had to close their Toronto clothing boutique Gaspard in mid-March. Some online purchases are coming in from regular customers, but it's not enough, Lyle says.
"People say, 'Oh, look at all the money you can't spend during a lockdown, you'll be OK.' But you know what? The bills keep coming. The postman drops them in the box every day."
Lyle is working for Summerhill Markets, a chain of three upscale grocery stores, delivering grocery orders mostly to seniors. He's paid a daily rate along with an allowance for gasoline.
"It's physically exhausting," he said. "A delivery may contain nine boxes, and I'm carrying them back and forth. But every night we ask ourselves, 'Can you imagine if we didn't have this?' We don't want to come out of it and be more in debt. That would be the worst."
He says he's incredibly thankful to the store's owners for hiring him and to the friend who recommended him for the position.
"Is my ego ready to let the world know that I'm a grocery delivery boy?" he said. "I worked in catering and restaurants in my early life, so I'm not ashamed or embarrassed to be doing this job. I'm grateful."
Mental health benefit
Graham says his desire to work in the grocery business was less about maintaining some form of income and more about his desire to stay busy.
"It's very important for me to feel I'm contributing and involved," he said. "I'm very social. I think it's an important service that has to continue, so I don't focus on the health risk. I think mental health is very important, too, and I take all the necessary precautions. I'm doing everything that's mandated."
In time, many of these temporary grocery workers will be able to return to their regular jobs. When that time comes, it will be an indicator that life is returning to normal — not just for them but for the grocery stores as well.