COVID-19 shifting perception of valuable jobs, prof says

A University of Waterloo professor says now that a number of grocery brands have raised wages for workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be challenging for them to walk back those raises once the pandemic ends.

Four major Canadian grocery brands have bumped wages

An employee stocks shelves at a Sobeys location. (David Bajer/CBC)

Now that a number of grocery brands have raised wages for workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be challenging for them to walk back those raises once the pandemic ends, a University of Waterloo professor says.

"It'll be difficult to turn back to say 'You were worth this much at this point, but now you're not worth that much anymore,'" said Ellen MacEachen, an associate professor in the university's school of public health and health systems, who studies work and the changing economy.

More broadly, MacEachen said she also thinks the current pandemic is shifting public perceptions around the value of the work done by those in jobs that are generally low-wage but nonetheless essential, such as grocery cashiers and delivery drivers.

The value of that work, she said, is particularly evident given that public health officials have urged people to stay home if at all possible.  

"It's amazing what risks they're putting themselves at … even with the extra two dollars an hour," said MacEachen.

Supply and demand

Tammy Schirle, professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University, said she's happy to see a newfound appreciation for people who work in grocery stores but is sceptical that the current goodwill will lead to lasting change.

She sees the situation as a straightforward matter of supply and demand. Right now, there is a high demand for grocery workers and a restricted supply, resulting in a boost in wages.

When life returns to normal, Schirle expects that will no longer be the case.

"In the long run, they might not take away the pay increase, but they might not let future increases keep up with inflation," she said. "And I am concerned that in the long run, these employees will be simply back where they were before."

Both MacEachen and Schirle agree the current moment could be an opportunity for broader conversations about what employment standards are fair, particularly when it comes to minimum wage.

Depending on how long the pandemic goes on, MacEachen said it could lead to a change in social values along the lines of what happened following the Second World War.

"We ended up having a social security system developed and redeveloped around that time, and maybe this will have some of that sort of impact as well, especially when you can see how quickly wages can increase in a situation like this," she said.

CBC News reached out to the Ministry of Labour to ask if the province had any plans to increase the minimum wage going forward.

In a statement, a spokesperson said the government is committed to preserving the current minimum wage at $14 an hour and will restart minimum wage increases tied to the Consumer Price Index in 2020.

CBC News also reached out to Sobeys, Loblaws, Metro and Walmart to ask if they plan to maintain their present wage increases once the pandemic ends and had not recieved a response at time of publishing.


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