Spitting and coughing assaults on service workers 'ramped up' amid COVID-19, union says

The United Food and Commercial Workers union in Ontario says bad behaviour targeting grocery workers has "ramped up significantly" since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Deliberate spitting and coughing incidents have been reported at grocery and other stores in Ontario

Police in southwestern Ontario say they've been called to an LCBO, a Zehr's grocery store and a Tim Hortons drive-through for calls of customers deliberately spitting or coughing on workers. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The United Food and Commercial Workers union in Ontario says bad behaviour targeting grocery workers has "ramped up significantly" since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Tim Deelstra, a union spokesperson with locals 175 and 633, says he's heard about people who touch, spit on and act aggressively towards workers.

"They're putting our members in jeopardy," said Deelstra. He's even heard about workers having to deal with used personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, left scattered around stores.

In recent weeks, police in southwestern Ontario say they've responded to reports of customers spitting or coughing on workers out of frustration. It's happened at a Zehr's grocery store in Guelph, a LCBO in Stratford and a Tim Hortons drive-thru in Waterloo, police say.

Police say the uptick in reports could be because the health risks of COVID-19 make victims more likely to report to police. 

Given the seriousness of the pandemic, police say they, too, are taking the incidents very seriously.

"It just broke my heart to hear of someone working at one of these essential businesses that is being treated in such a manner," said Const. Kyle Grant of Guelph Police.

"We felt the need to put that release out to the public, in looking for that public assistance to help bring the incident to a resolution."

Guelph police charged a 20-year-old St. Thomas man in connection to the Zehr's incident. In the other two cases, police are still looking for information.

Sheds light on other risky behaviour, says prof

Although coughing and spitting on service workers is clearly bad behaviour, Western University's Jacob Shelley said he hopes the pandemic will also draw attention to other, more apparently benign behaviours that can also put people at risk. Some examples include going to work or grocery shopping while sick, or not getting vaccinated, he said.

"These are risks that have always existed, and we haven't been attuned to them," said Shelley, who is an assistant professor in the department of law and school of health studies.

"How do you punish people for going out in a grocery store and shopping when they're ill? I don't know that we can do that, but at a minimum we should have a conversation about … how our interactions affect others to a greater degree than perhaps we acknowledge or recognize."

In the meantime, Deelstra said his union is working with employers to install safety features like the plexiglass shields in use at some stores. The union is also speaking with different levels of government about what other protections can be brought in, he said.

He said most people have generally been respectful of workers, but for those who haven't, his message is simple:

"Get with the program," he said.