Ottawa

Supermarket employees facing mounting risks, tensions

Grocery store clerks are emerging as some of the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting themselves at added risk of exposure and working long hours, many for near minimum wage.

Grocery store clerks emerging as unsung, often unthanked heroes of pandemic

A Superstore employee sanitizes shopping carts as people enter the grocery store in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Grocery store clerks are emerging as some of the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting themselves at added risk of exposure and working long hours, many for near minimum wage.

Often, it's a thankless job, especially these days. 

"A lot of people don't understand why we have our stock depleted. So people are really sounding off to the first person they see, and the first person they see is usually someone working in customer service," said Shannon McMullin, a "grocery associate" at Rainbow Foods on Richmond Road in Ottawa's Britannia neighbourhood.

"I personally have not been yelled at, but I've watched my co-workers take some verbal abuse from customers," she told Ottawa Morning. "When we can't serve them because we don't have their product, they get upset. They're not understanding at all the situation we're in. It's frustrating."

McMullin, 26, has been busy working the till, coordinating online orders, stocking the shelves and even cleaning and sanitizing the store. 

While major grocery chains have given their employees raises, Shannon McMullin's employer, Rainbow Foods on Richmond Road, is offering extra store credit to its staff. (Courtney Saunders)

Taking precautions

There are signs up asking customers to keep their distance, and even employees' name tags carry the two-metre message. The store has also reduced its hours to limit staff exposure and allow for more thorough cleaning.

Many mornings when McMullin arrives for work, there's already a line of customers waiting.

"I have to anticipate that first surge in the morning, which is extremely unusual," she said.

The store's owner is currently looking into installing Plexiglas shields to protect cashiers, something major grocery chains have already done. Staff are provided with gloves and hand sanitizer, but don't expect to find those items on the shelves.

"It's gone as soon as we put it on the shelf," McMullin said. "Our canned beans and canned soups are pretty depleted as well." There's also been a run on staples such as flour and yeast as homebound families rediscover baking.

Some employees who recently travelled outside the country are in self-isolation, but McMullin said she knows of none who is sick.

While major grocery chains have announced raises for employees who continue working through the pandemic, Rainbow Foods, a smaller health food store, is offering its workers extra store credit as an incentive.

McMullin's name tag reminds customers to keep their distance. (Shannon McMullin)

Uncertainty taking its toll

McMullin said the uncertainty is starting to take its toll.

"We have no idea what to expect, since everything is changing every single day. We don't know who is going to come in [or] what supplies we're getting in," she said. "We just take everything day by day right now, which is exciting but also very taxing."

Despite the stress, McMullin said most customers have been kind, and her employer and co-workers have been supportive.

"There have been a lot of jokes, especially in the back room, as staff try to make the best of the situation," she said. "The management has been extremely supportive, and I'm really grateful for that."

With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning

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