Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

We say people who work in supermarkets are essential employees. Do we treat them that way?

Grocery store and other retail workers have been expected to report for work during the COVID-19 pandemic. As John Gushue writes, they have also had to endure sporadic harassment and uncertainty about their place in vaccination campaigns.

Expected to work during lockdowns, grocery workers have had to deal with unusual problems

The Colemans grocery store on Newfoundland Drive in St. John's was the site of an anti-masking video that wound up rallying support for workers at the independent grocer. (John Gushue/CBC)

We've developed a bit of a habit over the last year. Early every Sunday, my wife and I set out for a weekly grocery run, buying food for two households: our own, as well as my mother-in-law. It turns out that Sunday morning is a great time to go to stores: the shelves are all stocked, you can breeze through the aisles and there's hardly anyone else there.

Except for the staff, that is. It's those folks — and other people who are keeping vital services running in the service economy — that are the focus of this column, as well as the part they play in our pandemic response. That includes our immunization plan; more on that below.

If there's even been an opportunity to encourage all of us to be grateful for people working in places like supermarkets, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven it. These jobs are sometimes described as invisible; we don't notice them until we can't access them.

When Snowmageddon and its state of emergency crashed into our lives in January 2020, I was struck by the number of people who noted how they had taken grocery shopping for granted.

When the pandemic arrived two months later, it was even more obvious what a lifeline we have in something as simple as picking up food.

By the way, I should note there that the supermarket mentioned above was the Colemans store on Newfoundland Drive. That very phrase — "Colemans on Newfoundland Drive" — will no doubt prompt a smile for some people, because it was repeated so frequently in a widely shared video by an anti-masker last week that it sparked a lot of humorous reaction on social media.

A woman was outraged that she had been denied service at that store because she would not wear a mask, and streamed a video right from the counter where her groceries stayed on the belt by the cashier. 

'These incidents are very few'

The intent of the live-streamed video was to rally people against Colemans. Quite the opposite happened. For instance, an attempt to trash Colemans on Google Reviews backfired: two negative reviews, and then 70 positive ones.

Supermarket workers have been expected to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. (John Gushue/CBC)

We noticed something was up at the store when we saw a security guard at the entrance. Two of the supermarket workers told me staff were very appreciative of the public reaction.

"These incidents are very few," Greg Gill, Colemans vice-president of marketing, told The St. John's Morning Show earlier this week. "The support that came through social media [has been] overwhelmingly supportive of what we're trying to accomplish here."

In a nutshell, Gill said, Colemans policy works out to "no mask, no service right now" for in-store shopping, while stressing that it's a temporary measure in line with current public health guidance. Customers with medical exemptions can avail of curbside pickup.

If nothing else, incidents like this — plus all the other things we've endured over the last year — have raised the appreciation that many people have for retail and other service economy workers. Even though many were furloughed by lockdown provisions, others were expected to report for work to keep essential services running. Grocery chains offered extra pay in the early period of the pandemic, but that expired. 

We've learned about the virus and how to contain it. Last spring, we were obsessed with all the things we could potentially touch, but we've learned that respiratory protection is much, much more important. We need to be focused less on the surfaces we touch and more on the air we breathe. Hence, mask mandates, as key to limiting transmission as staying in your bubble and six feet apart from strangers.

Time spent in one place is a critical point

You often hear Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador's indefatigable chief medical officer of health, repeat the mantra of "people, space, time and place" — a way of emphasizing limits on contacts, not standing close to others, limiting the amount of time we spend with others, and knowing that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones.

It's the third one — time — that is worth remembering when we look at the risks we expect supermarket workers to take on. Remember this: customers may only be in a store for a short period of time, but workers are there for the full shift. They are the ones who are accepting a heavier burden.

A grocery cart sits in a corral near a Colemans supermarket in St. John's. (John Gushue/CBC)

It's also worth noting that these workers earn considerably less than other people whose labour is deemed essential.

I was curious to see where these workers might end up in the provincial vaccination strategy, which was unveiled just over a week ago.

It seems more than reasonable to suggest that if we expect these people to report for work to keep vital services (like the food supply) intact, we should be specific in the protections that will be offered.

So far, there's not a huge amount of clarity.

In the Newfoundland and Labrador government's vaccination plan, which was announced Feb. 26, the second phase will include "front-line essential workers who have direct contact with the public and cannot work from home during Alert Level 5."

When my colleague Peter Cowan asked Fitzgerald about who exactly falls into that classification on Wednesday, she said, "As we work through that, certainly, you know, we'll have more information available as time goes on." On Friday, Fitzgerald did not have much more detail to add. 

A big change on the vaccine front 

Things, though, are changing rapidly — and substantially — on the vaccination front. When the government announced its plan just over a week ago, it had hoped to get about 40,000 people vaccinated by the end of March.

On Wednesday, that number effectively doubled.

WATCH | Janice Fitzgerald on Wednesday laid out details of how many more people will be vaccinated in March than first thought: 

Hefty hike in vaccination will help end pandemic earlier, Fitzgerald says

7 months ago
6:22
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald reports highest-ever single-day report of COVID-19 recoveries 6:22

A couple of things have changed. One is the approval of the AstroZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which does not require the complications (and expense) of a cold chain, as well as a significant change in guidance that now allows up to 16 weeks between the first and second doses of the vaccines that require two shots.

Before those changes, the exact order of who gets shots and when was a bit more fraught: you could feel the tension among people who felt excluded.

It may turn out that the hike in supply will render some of those concerns relatively moot.

Nonetheless, it seems appropriate that we should reflect on what exactly we expect from essential workers, and what we're prepared to do to protect them.

All of them.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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