'We should be paid a living wage': Discount grocery store workers speak out against management, unions

Discount grocery store employees at Food Basics and No Frills are speaking out about what they say is unfair pay for the type of work they're doing, alleging that management and the union aren't doing anything to help.

Food Basics employees say company and unions are not fighting enough for their rights

Pamela Singleton, left, and Joseph Pascuzzi, right, are workers at discount grocery stores in the GTA. They're speaking out about pay disparity amongst part-time and full-time workers. (CBC)

Discount grocery store employees at Food Basics and No Frills are speaking out about what they say is unfair pay for the type of work they're doing, alleging that management and the union aren't doing anything to help. The employees reached out to CBC Toronto after reading our story about a Food Basics worker who said part-time staff were being "taken advantage of."

A part-time job at the No Frills in Whitby was supposed to help Joseph Pascuzzi pay his student debt and bills, until he could find a better job in his field.

Six years later, the university graduate is still working there — making $1.85 more than when he started. Hired as a part-time worker and now responsible for the frozen department, he is scheduled 40 hours a week, but his hourly rate is lower than full-time workers doing the same job. Collective agreements at grocery chains across the province have different pay scales for part-time and full-time employees.

"I did assume there were full-time jobs available and that I would eventually get one," said Pascuzzi. He added that there hasn't been a full-time job position become available since he started working there and that the store only has one full-time staff member.

"There are people that are doing this to survive," he said. "We should be able to be paid a living wage if we're doing a job and it's got to be the retail company that's willing to pay."

In response, Loblaw Companies Limited, the parent company of No Frills, says it's "simply misleading" to say part-time employees commonly work 40 hours a week.

"It's very rare for them to regularly work more than 28 and seldom would any reach 40 on any consistent basis," said the company's statement. "If we find there's enough work for a full-time position, we create a full-time role."

Joseph Pascuzzi, speaking to Makda Ghebreslassie, says in the six years he's been working at the Whitby No Frills, no full-time jobs have become available. (CBC)

Part-time work no longer just for 'students, mothers'

Survival is something Pamela Singleton, a Food Basics worker in Toronto, knows well.

Her cashier job is one of two part-time positions she has to make ends meet.

Part-time work was "originally for students, mothers who wanted to make extra money — but it's not like that anymore," she said.

"These are parents, these are grandparents, these are mothers, fathers like myself who can't find work to survive so we go to these jobs because there's nothing else." She adds that many part-timers at her store are also working full-time hours for part-time pay.

Pamela Singleton says there is a culture of fear and bullying among part-timers at her Food Basics, as they are afraid to speak up without being reprimanded. (CBC)

Metro Co., the parent company for Food Basics, said it operates stores in accordance with collective agreements and applicable legislation — meaning part-time worker hours are capped at 24 or 28 a week.

Grocery industry is 80-90% part-time workers, union says

According to Angelo DiCaro of Unifor, one of two main unions that represent grocery retail workers in Ontario, between 80 to 90 per cent of their grocery worker membership is hired as part-time.

Full-time pay for all employees is one of the union's priorities, but the issue is met with "fierce resistance at the bargaining table" and is "very quickly shut down," DiCaro said.

He added that wages in the grocery industry are "sub-standard, and that's where a lot of the union's energy is spent.

"The whole part-time, full-time disparity, it's a matter of equity," he said, adding that it's something that should be "sorted out through legislation."

Tim Deelstra, with UFCW Local 175, encourages part-time workers to become more engaged if they are unhappy with their collective agreement and wages. (CBC)

UFCW Local 175 represents more than 29,000 grocery store workers and its membership is increasingly made up of part-timers, says Tim Deelstra.

But according to Deelstra, members are "vastly better off than members in non-union areas" and increasing U.S. retail competition has created additional challenges for the industry.

Part-time workers should "engage and help achieve positive change" if they are unhappy with their collective agreement and pay scales, he added. 

DiCaro hopes "something will surface" from the government's workplace review to give unions "another leg up to try and correct [the part-time pay] disparity."

Through the Changing Workplaces Review, the government is looking at ways to change the Employment Standards Act and labour laws in the province. One of the things on the table would be giving part-time workers the same hourly pay as full-time workers, regardless of hours worked.

Union not helping part-timers, says employee

Singleton thinks the unions can and should be doing more.

"I feel like the union is in bed with the store," she said, especially when it comes to advocating for part-time workers. She has strong words for her union, which she accuses of "lining their pockets on part-timers." She said she has to work two hours to "pay the union $20 and for them not to do anything."

Singleton recently sought the union's help after an internal matter between her and her manager — where she was suspended and lost several days of pay.

After CBC Toronto reached out to Unifor about Singleton's situation, her pay issue was resolved and the monies owed to her for suspended shifts were repaid. But Singleton said the union wasn't helpful and she never heard from them during her ordeal.

Two other Food Basics employees in the GTA also reached out to CBC, echoing Singleton's sentiment that they felt left behind by their union when they tried to address allegations of part-time worker misuse and bullying by management.

Upon hearing that part-time employees don't feel comfortable talking to their union, Angelo DiCaro with Unifor said this was "disheartening" and that there are always ways workers can talk to their steward confidentially. (CBC)

In an email statement, Metro said it "works to offer a work environment focused on positive relationships," which includes "promoting an ethical and respectful work environment" and "developing talent."

The company, the statement says, encourages employees to speak to their manager when they have concerns and has mechanisms in place to report issues, including an anonymous line called "Speak Up."

The statement adds that Metro, which employs 27,000 employees in Ontario, took steps to investigate concerns that were raised in CBC Toronto's article and found no "pattern of error" when it came to complying with collective agreements.

DiCaro said it "breaks [his] heart" to hear Singleton felt let down. "It's so disheartening to know that a member could feel they're being taken advantage of."

Retail industry growing and evolving

Contrary to what the grocery retail unions say, Caroline Hubberstey with the Retail Council of Canada, said part-time versus full-time employment has actually remained stable over the last several years and that full-time retail employment is actually growing.

Metro says they are employing more full-time employees than they were 20 years ago. Loblaw did not answer when asked what portion of their work force is full-time and part-time.

The retail sector is the country's largest employer with over two million workers, according to Hubberstey.

"What once were considered traditional shopping hours are no longer traditional in today's fast-paced world," she said, adding that many businesses are now open 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Due to that change, more and more companies want to have a flexible workforce and that's partly to blame for the shift in part-time and full-time dynamics, according to Bruce Winder, partner at the Retail Advisors Network.

"Retailers are trying to match labour expenses with sales," he said

"Whether it's right or wrong, I can't say but businesses will do what they do to make money."

Echoing what Finance Minister Bill Morneau said last November, Winder said that the part-time reality is a trend in Canada as more people have a "side hustle" or more than one job.

The government is still awaiting the final report from its Changing Workplaces Review.


Alexandra Sienkiewicz

Journalist and Producer

Alexandra Sienkiewicz is an award-winning TV producer with over a decade of newsroom experience. She started her CBC journalism career covering national news before moving over to the fast-paced world of local. She believes every news story starts at the local level and those are the stories she most loves to tell. In her off-time, Alexandra​ dabbles in food and wine, furthering her education ​as a sommelier​.