Manitoba

Declare grocery store staff essential, provide access to protective gear, Manitoba union says

The union that represents over 7,000 Manitoba grocery store workers says those people are at the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the provincial government should ensure they are provided with protective gear such as gloves and masks.

'The public needs them to show up to work, while everyone else is being asked to stay home': UFCW president

People line up outside a Costco store in Winnipeg on Wednesday. (Darin Morash/CBC)

The union that represents over 7,000 Manitoba grocery store workers says those people are at the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the provincial government should ensure they are provided with protective gear such as gloves and masks.

With those items in short supply across the country, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 president Jeff Traeger said cashiers at grocery stores are being left without access to gloves, at a time when they are serving hundreds of customers daily.

"It might be a single exposure for you as a customer, but that cashier — especially with the volume of traffic in our stores right now — is basically seeing a different person every two minutes for their entire shift, and they don't know if they are potential carriers of the disease," he said.

"All of the major employers have basically run out of the ability to get a supply of these gloves."

Traeger said that any gloves that grocery stores have are being used in areas such as the bakery, deli or seafood departments, where the Canadian Food Inspection Agency mandates their usage.

Essential service

He wrote a letter to Premier Brian Pallister on Thursday asking him to declare grocery stores, food production and food distribution an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers in these industries should be given protection similar to that of health-care workers when it comes to gear such as gloves, masks and cleaning supplies, UFCW's letter said. 

Those workers also need to be provided options for accessible child care, he said. 

Jeff Traeger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832, said grocery store workers are providing an essential service. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The letter "was to bring to his attention that we need to recognize what grocery workers are going through right now and we need address them in the same manner we address other front-line and essential services," Traeger said.

A spokesperson for the province called this a "rapidly-evolving situation" and said they are following the advice of stakeholders and public health officials. She did not address Traeger's specific requests.

"The provincial government has already implemented a number of changes to better protect Manitobans, such as working to create dedicated child-care options for front-line and essential service staff," said Andrea Slobodian in a written statement. 

The union is also calling for all workers in these industries to be paid a minimum of $15 per hour during the pandemic, with a hazard pay boost if they aren't already making that much.

"Many of these workers are fairly low wages workers if they haven't been with the employers for a long time," he said.

"The supply of food and access to food for Canadians is crucial during a time Canadians are being asked to stay home."

Limit customers in stores: UFCW

He also wants the provincial government to enforce limits on the number of shoppers in grocery stores, and have presumptive workers' compensation coverage if an employee has to file a claim if exposed to COVID-19.

Presumptive coverage means the worker is automatically covered by compensation, without having to prove their conditions were caused at work.

Manitobans are relying on grocery stores to remain open and those workers don't have the option to work from home, Traeger said. 

"These workers are essential right now, and the public needs them to show up to work, while everyone else is being asked to stay home."

The same goes for food production workers.

"They are running cash and trying to keep the shelves stocked with product. We have other workers in the distribution line of business who are working around the clock to try to get supplies to the store," he said.

"These people need to be out in the world and they need to be exposed to the public."

The union represents workers at multiple Co-op stores around the province, Loblaw stores (including Superstore, Extra Foods and No Frills) and Sobeys West Inc. stores (including all Safeway stores across Manitoba and one Sobeys Extra location).

The union also represents the workers at  Maple Leaf and HyLife, the two major pork producers in Manitoba, and in poultry it represents over 800  workers at Granny's and Dunn-rite.

 

About the Author

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca