British Columbia

Union calls for bonuses, increased safety measures for front-line workers

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1518, which represents front-line workers, said it has seen a near-tenfold increase in reported workplace COVID-19 exposures over the last week, and is calling for increased safety measures and bonus pay for workers.

Businesses warned to create contingency plans to keep doors open as more workers call in sick

A cashier pictured in a grocery store in London, Ont. Nearly two years into the pandemic, thousands of Canadian frontline workers who are unable to do their job from home continue to put themselves at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. (Colin Butler/CBC)

A union that represents front-line workers is calling for increased safety measures and bonus pay as COVID-19 case counts continue to surge. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1518, based in New Westminster, B.C., said it has seen a near-tenfold increase in reported workplace COVID-19 exposures over the last week.

Earlier this month, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry warned businesses to start creating contingency plans so they can keep their doors open when employees start calling in sick.

"We need to anticipate that as many as one-third of a workforce might be ill and forced to stay away," she said during a news conference. 

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry delivers a COVID-19 briefing in Vancouver, B.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Early this month, Henry said businesses need to come up with contingency plans, and anticipate up to a third of the workforce calling in sick. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"The biggest concerns that we're hearing from our members who are on the front lines is that they're tired, they're exhausted and they're scared," UFCW Local 1518 president Kim Novak said. 

As more workers are off work due to illness, those who remain on the job often have to pick up the slack, says the union.

"There is more work that needs to get done, and that has increased hours for a lot of workers," Novak said. "It's also increased workloads for a lot of people, and that has put a lot of additional stress."

The UFCW — which represents more than 26,000 workers in the community health, hospitality, retail, cannabis, industrial and professional sectors — is calling on employers to provide better masks and better enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing guidelines. 

The union says it has heard from workers who claim that management has put the onus on workers to enforce protocols, and that management has not done enough to limit the number of customers allowed into a store. 

'Constant overtime'

Kelowna Curling Club general manager Jock Tyre says he has had more workers call in sick and has struggled to find enough people to help keep pace with the workload.

Workers who manage the ice have been "working constant overtime" and he is "stringing together" workers who juggle multiple jobs, he said. 

"We're running either short-staffed or we're getting people to come in for a two-hour shift because that's all the time they have," he said. "They don't have time to work a four- or five-hour shift."

Tyre added he is grateful for the workers who are trying to fill the gaps. 

"You really appreciate when people just actually show up for their shift," he said.

"It's easy for people to quit and go somewhere else, because there's so many jobs out there. When people are genuinely diligent and come in, you appreciate them a little bit more."

Bring back bonuses, union says

The UFCW's Novak said many employers offered bonuses to workers during the pandemic's first wave, and now is the time to once again acknowledge staff who help keep businesses open. 

Jerry Dias, national president for trade union Unifor, has also called on Canada's grocers to reinstate "hero pay" for employees.

"Pandemic pay was a recognition that front-line workers are at an increased risk from the coronavirus," he said. "That danger is still there."

NDP critic for economic development, MP Brian Masse, sent a letter to the heads of Canada's biggest supermarkets saying workers are doing risky work and deserve a wage premium to keep stores open and shelves stocked.

"Hopefully, we won't be in this wave as long as we have been in other moments in this pandemic but certainly, while we are, we want to see workers being recognized for that," Novak said.

With files from Isabelle Raghem and The Canadian Press

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