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The Hands that Feed, Part 1: Faces of the Grocery Frontlines

in Analysis/Featured/Longread by

This is the first part of the Independent’s The Hands That Feed series, exploring the true value of essential food work.


‘Food’ ranked first in the original list of retail services Newfoundland and Labrador officials had identified as essential during a public health emergency. Understandably so: food is a basic biological need and a fundamental human right. Food workers in grocery stores suddenly accounted for a large number of those employed in positions being recognized as vital to our communities under uncertain (but certainly unsafe) circumstances.

As the province braced for the impact of a global pandemic, citizens in municipalities across the province made noise in solidarity with those who had been deemed “essential workers.” The Premier’s Executive Council began lighting the Confederation Building in yellow on Sunday evenings to signal its gratitude to these same workers.

“We’re not essential. We’re expendable.”

That was the feeling one Foodland staff member expressed to the Independent near the end of March. Despite the fanfare for their front-line service, food retail employees themselves were not convinced they are adequately recognized in ways which make a tangible improvement in their lives. They would prefer to be fairly compensated for work which was always essential, but which had now become actively dangerous.

As the crisis has made undeniable, all-important food work occurs through undervalued labour with a tendency toward bare-minimum pay. Low wages, coupled with precarious hours and a lack of health benefits, keeps the very individuals who sustain our access to food impoverished and food-insecure.

Treating food as just another commodity has undermined access to a socially, culturally, and biologically vital resource. Instead, we have rendered it unrecognizable: a disconnected service administered to create wealth for a few through exploiting the labourers who bring it into existence. As the pandemic unfolded, warnings of shortages, supply-rationing, and mass waste grew—highlighting the complex issues with a chain-like system that go beyond labour conditions, but which are inextricably linked to the treatment of those in food work.

The perilous nature of our food system has suddenly become impossible to ignore.

“Everybody needs to be kind.”

First came panic, evidenced through bare shelves in grocery stores. Poor behaviour manifested in customers across the country, with grocery staff finding themselves asking for simple human decency.

“Be patient. Be kind. Everybody needs to be kind.”

That was the message from Rose, a cashier at Foodland in Botwood, one day in early April. “I was very rudely spoken to twice yesterday. The first was a lady, I had never laid eyes on her before, she was just rude all around. I laughed that one off. Then the second was a gentleman in line who got too close—I said ‘now, are you practicing your social distancing?’ and he said to me ‘What do you want me to do, throw my groceries at you?’”

“It’s very overwhelming. I’m good today,” she told the Independent. “If it wasn’t for my colleagues and my manager I would have walked out of the store. I went to the back and we talked, I cried, we laughed, and I went back out. But I don’t know how much more any of us can take.”

“We’re all in the same boat. I’m the last face they see in the store before they leave, why should they be rude? It’s not needed,” Rose continued. “It’s mentally stressful. It irks me. It hurts, to be honest.”

There are 29 Foodland stores in the province, most of which are independent franchises of the Canadian Sobeys Inc. On its corporate website, Sobeys markets Foodland as having “a hometown advantage,” given that its store operators are typically local entrepreneurs. The corporation also touts its “nurturing” approach towards its franchisees, employees, and their communities as a benefit of becoming a Foodland operator—as well as listing “full grocery store accountability” as a qualification for the role.

That ‘full accountability’ meant that when a corporate campaign promised to pay employees “Hero Pay” for hours worked during the pandemic, the release shared through Sobeys’ social media pages failed to mention it would not be extended to its franchise employees—leaving independent owners responsible to come up with the extra funds. The internal communications circulated by Sobeys to its stores read: “Franchisees are strongly encouraged to adopt the same Hero Pay Program.”

“Sobeys isn’t helping them at all,” one Foodland manager, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job, told the Independent. “They tried negotiating, arguing—but it boiled down to either the franchisees pay for the whole program or we receive no extra pay. They can’t. Sobeys didn’t warn them the program was coming, certainly never asked them for any input on it, and expects them to just work it out.”

“So the managers at corporate-owned Foodlands [and Sobeys] will pull over a thousand extra dollars a cheque, and I’ll get whatever pittance my boss can manage. Given she’s already told us she can’t afford to scale us when minimum wage goes up, we’ll be lucky to get anything.”

The employee also worried that with no temporary paid sick leave benefit—also part of the corporate program—this presented staff and customers with a public health concern.

“There’s no sick leave for the franchises. We have the choice to work or hope EI can cover us. That’s it,” they told the Indy. “We have no sick time. You don’t work, you don’t get paid. None of us can afford to stay home.”

The Bare Essentials

The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) explicitly disqualified essential workers—regardless of whether they felt unsafe or underpaid—through the requirement that applicants had not left their job voluntarily. Although health officials began imploring people to stay at home if they felt sick, those who make minimum or similarly low wages in our province simply could not afford to do so.

Before the April 1 increase to $11.65 (a 25-cent increase based on the Consumer Price Index), the minimum wage had been $11.40. Newfoundland and Labrador’s minimum wage remains one of the lowest in the country, higher only than Saskatchewan’s $11.35, and sits second last with Manitoba. Despite a recent review by the province’s independent minimum wage committee, promised increases fall far short of a living wage.

Our minimum wage will max out at $12.65 by April 21, 2021—possibly slightly more, depending on fluctuations to the CPI. Meanwhile, extensive research published in 2019 on an appropriate living wage for the capital city of St. John’s pegged that value at $18.85/hour. It also showed that without two earners making at least $18.85 full-time (with benefits), families here struggle to access basic necessities like food. Parents skip meals so that their children are fed, and the most nutritious foods are financially out of reach for many. Single parents, particularly women, are especially vulnerable: they are more likely to be low-wage earners and, with only one income, affording healthy food can be extremely difficult. Women make up the majority of minimum wage and part-time workers in Canada, and accounted for 63 percent of the jobs which were lost at the onset of the pandemic.

The University of Toronto PROOF Food Policy Research team’s latest report on the state of food insecurity in Canada found that among 35 major cities in the country, food insecurity was most prevalent in St. John’s, affecting more than 1 in 6 households. It also reiterated what scholars have found time and again: “The deprivation experienced by households that are food-insecure is not confined to food; household food insecurity denotes pervasive material deprivation.”

This is why low income is tightly tied to food insecurity: unlike other goods that we produce and consume, food is essential as we literally cannot live without it. And yet, for those without adequate income, other more rigid budgetary demands such as rent and utilities—which cannot be negotiated—leave food as the thing that must be compromised.

Household food insecurity is an important measure of population well-being in high-income countries like Canada. It captures a level of financial vulnerability where, at minimum, individuals experience anxiety that their food supplies will run out, and at more severe levels, members of the household go without food. Further, the research repeated that being deprived of adequate nutritious foods takes a serious toll on individuals’ health and well-being, and places a significant burden on our health care system. Children living with severe food insecurity are linked to poorer health status overall and the development of chronic conditions, including asthma and depression. Adults in food-insecure households are more likely to report poorer mental health, and to be diagnosed with multiple chronic conditions.

Risk for food insecurity remains highest for those reliant on social assistance. But 65 percent of all food-insecure individuals in Canada are in the workforce: they are part-time, low-wage earners with precarious hours and no benefits like paid sick leave or vacation. Between 2007 and 2012, Newfoundland and Labrador had a targeted poverty reduction action plan which specifically addressed improving earned incomes, a stronger social safety net, and decreasing the financial vulnerability of Income Support clients. These efforts coincided with an unprecedented decrease in food insecurity across the province from 15.4 percent to just 10.6 percent by 2011.

But the prevalence of food insecure households with their main income from employment increased during the same period. This suggests that wages were still inadequate for low-wage working people to keep up with the rising cost of living. Since then, the minimum wage has stagnated, as have Income Supports which are no longer indexed to inflation. Both currently fall short of all three national poverty markers.

In the context of a global pandemic, allowing poverty-level wages to be paid to anyone—much less essential frontline food workers—is a healthcare and a human rights issue.

We’re too scared. We’ll get fired.”

“Most everyone is on minimum wage, especially part-timers,” the anonymous Foodland manager explained to the Independent. “If you become a manager you get a bit more. I’ve had three raises since I’ve been here and that’s fourteen years. I make $13.10 an hour. Outside of the franchisee, I’m the highest paid employee in the store.”

“I’ve worked retail for a long time, so what meager savings I had, I used up a few years back during a family health emergency. I’ve never been able to rebuild it because clawing my way back into financial stability seems impossible on my current wages. At the moment, if not for my overdraft, I’d either have to go to Goodwill or stop paying to eat. And I’m one of the luckier ones.”

Another employee at a different Foodland franchise, who also asked to remain anonymous to protect their job, shared their colleagues’ feelings of frustration.

“I can’t afford to risk my job. We work full-time hours but are classified as part-time. Only department managers are classified as full-time in our case. Everyone else’s hours are essentially set, but this way we aren’t entitled to sick time and we get less vacation,” they explained. “Sobeys’ Hero Pay program and its worker protections are being rolled out to a very small number of their total stores. As a result, I know of two [Foodland franchise] stores in central Newfoundland whose staff are ready for a complete walk-out. It’s pretty tense, people are snapping at each other, then apologizing and making up over a quick coffee. Everyone’s hands are burned bright red between the sanitizer when we can get it, and the quaternary ammonia. Lots of tears at close and people not certain they can justify coming back the next day.”

“The fear has gotten a lot worse in the last couple days,” they told the Independent in early April. This fear was being shared by grocery and other food workers across Canada and the United States. With the general public told to stay away from grocery stores as much as possible, these workers still had to show up every day.

The Foodland manager we spoke with had heard about the potential strike, too.

“We’re too scared. We’ll get fired. The franchisee is lovely, but Sobeys doesn’t care,” they explained. “They’ll fire the management staff and replace us with people from other stores. That’s just Sobeys. It’s how they operate behind the scenes.”

Rose works in one of the Foodland franchises which did not receive the extra pay.

“We are not happy with it. Anybody who’s working right now in the public should get compensation for this,” she told the Independent. “I fear bringing something home to my husband. He’s diabetic and he’s had a heart attack, so he won’t even go through the door right now. Then I go to work and who knows what I might bring home. I think about that everyday that I go to work.”

Dominion staff felt the same.

“It’s a warzone. My manager pulled me aside when I went in yesterday for my 4 hour shift and said: ‘It’s a warzone out there. You could go in there right now and get the virus and die—if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to. Just tell me and I’ll take you off the schedule,’” Hugh Alcock, a business student at CNA who also works at the Blackmarsh Dominion in St. John’s, explained. “My dad’s not in the best health, and I live at home right now while I’m in school. So if I bring something home, that’s not going to be very good either.”

Because Dominion employees are unionized, Alcock was free to speak with the Independent without anonymity. But even the security of union representation has not spared Dominion staff from the corporate greed rampant among the oligopoly of grocery chains in our country.

Although Loblaws was first to implement their own temporary increase in pay across stores (followed a day later by Sobeys’ announcement), this did not come without criticism from those knowledgeable about Loblaws and Weston Foods’ despicable labour and corporate practices. Or its CEO’s attempts at blocking increases in minimum wage across the country.

It was a real punch in the face.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, following a campaign of cuts by Loblaws—and subsequent failed union negotiations to secure what was left of full-time positions here—conciliation talks between Loblaws and Unifor have now also come to an impasse, according to a Facebook post by Unifor on March 24. Typically, this would have led to a lock-out and strike vote commencing on April 5. Instead, Unifor and Loblaws have mutually agreed to avoid a strike for now, citing that membership meetings province-wide have had to be postponed. Comments on the post from the official Unifor Local 597 account read: “We didn’t feel it would be in the best interest of our members, or the general public to consider job action.” Another comment from a union member read:

“The whole world is dealing with a pandemic. We have been designated as essential workers, taking job action at this time would be irresponsible on our part. Our issues are not with the public, they are with the company. We cannot take job action when our country and our province are facing these horrific times. This is a time to put our differences aside and focus on the bigger picture: feeding the people of our province as safely as we can. There will be time when all this is behind us to discuss our differences with the company, but right now the people of this province need us and we will be there for them, and hopefully they will be there for us if or when we need them.”

In the meantime, Unifor is calling for the temporary wage increases to be permanent.

“They gave everyone a $2.00 raise across the island—I thought it was good. But think about what they’re doing across the [province] right now, we’re fighting for a higher wage,” Alcock lamented. “So it was a real punch in the face that they could have done this all along. And it’s not going to last. It’s going to be really hard to go back to this fight after all of this is over.”

Already Canada’s highest profiting grocer, Loblaws estimated they had generated $42 million more in the first quarter of 2020 than last year. On June 11, Loblaws announced it was ending the temporary benefit as of June 13. They ended the release by stating “the wellbeing of our colleagues remain[s] our top priority.”

Newfoundland’s Own Supermarket Retail Chain

At Colemans grocery stores—whose website boasts its food division is the largest, fully-integrated independent retail food operation in Atlantic Canada—the company quietly rolled out an employee compensation program on April 3. Without sharing news of the program publicly, a letter signed by President and CEO Frank Coleman thanked their “amazing” food store and distribution team members with access to an online medical program. He also announced the company’s own attempt at compensating staff for their newly-dangerous work conditions: gift cards for their own stores.

“You will receive a Colemans “Thank You” Gift Card (redeemable at any Colemans Grocery, Arthur James Clothing or Colemans BrandSource Furniture Store) valued at $1.50 (approx. $2.15 less deductions) for every hour worked,” Coleman wrote in the letter. “This will be reviewed as the COVID-19 crisis evolves. For example, if you work 40 hours in a week, then in a two-week pay period you would receive a “Thank You” Gift Card in the value of: 80 hours x $1.50 – $120 “Thank You” Gift Card. Your first “Thank You” Gift Card amount will be tallied based on your hours worked from March 13th-27th and distributed to you the week of April 6th.”

While Colemans did already offer paid sick leave after a probationary period of three months—and were quick to implement social distancing guidelines at their stores—the new pay measures were not received well by staff. Following the internal announcement, the Independent was given access to the private group messages used by staff at one Colemans store to communicate with each other. Here are some of the employee reactions to the announcement:

“It does kind of suck. It’s scary out there right now, and I thought we’d get more for our risk than Colemans fun bucks.”

“I understand [that Colemans is smaller than Walmart and other places], but they decided to do this in the cheapest easy-for-them way possible. Gift cards save them money because they only spend wholesale prices on the product, while we spend the cards on full price items. So a $120 card could cost them as little as $40-60 in product.”

“Some of us don’t even work 40 hours in a week, some of us work 25 or less and that’s nothing if you think about getting it in a gift card.”

“I know what you mean, that only equates to about 40 dollars a week on the card.”

“Most of us on the ground right now are part-time. I make minimum wage and have to work about 20-30 hours a week because I’m in school full-time as well,” one Colemans employee, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job, explained to the Independent. “If I had been laid off I would be making more money right now—but because I have a job, which is always the goal in our society, I feel as though this is wrong.”

“Media outlets keep regarding us as essential employees but we are not being supported as such. ‘Thank-you’ doesn’t pay my rent or power bills. ‘Thank-you’ doesn’t make all the anxiety of being financially vulnerable during this time go away. I’ve always tried my best to keep a job and this is the first time I feel like it’s actually working against me to do so.”

“Winning the Future of Grocery Retail”

Even for Sobeys employees in the province who are receiving additional pay, the extra $50 per week for non-managerial staff, plus the $2 additional per hour—only for hours over a 20 hour per week threshold—begs the question of whether this is compensation that befits a hero at all. On April 15, Sobeys’ parent company Empire Company Ltd. released a statement confirming that their sales were up 37 percent over the March-April period last year:

“Starting on February 28, the Company reported significantly higher sales in all formats except fuel. Sales further accelerated from March 8 onward as customers began to stock up in preparation for possible stay-at-home requirements. By March 22, the sales intensity began to subside, although still significantly above prior year levels.”

The release went on to state that their investments in Hero Pay and extra sanitation measures were estimated to increase the company’s expenses by $80-90 million during the quarter—but reassured its shareholders this would only partly offset the positive effect of increased sales. The corporation enjoyed over $387 million in earnings last year, and now it was capitalizing immensely—while only partially paying its employees from the extra proceeds despite risking their lives so that we could all eat.

Meanwhile, President and CEO Michael Medline’s annual compensation was $5,414,943 in 2019 and $5,535,782 in 2018, with Empire’s other named executive officers coming close behind. In 2018, Chief Financial Officer Michael Vels’ total compensation was $4,230,169, and $2,131,042 in 2019. Its Executive Vice-President of Merchandising has made over $11 million since 2017. In the past three years, its other two executives made almost $12.5 million in aggregate.

For a company which regards the grocery industry as a game to be won, this is true to form. The language in Empire’s 2019 Annual Report made it clear to shareholders: they are focused on policies which will see them “winning the future of grocery retail.” In recent years, this has taken shape as ‘Project Sunrise’, an “aggressive” corporate strategy aimed at cutting positions in their internal operations.

The effects of the project trickled down to Foodlands in our own province, as one employee told the Independent: “It hasn’t been the easiest five years with Sobeys and their parent company trying to restructure. At this point, we’re used to it. There definitely is an undercurrent of anger. Whenever something gets cut, generally it’s cut from us.”

“The restructuring is done and seems to be stable, but the stress definitely didn’t go anywhere.”

At the prompting of a Foodland franchisee who stated media inquiries must go through the “proper channels”—i.e. Sobeys’ head office in Nova Scotia—we reached out to Sobeys’ communications team for comment on May 25.

As of publication, we have not received a response, so we checked in with staff members again. After franchisees fought the unfairness, Sobeys did step in to assist with extra pay, but reduced the bonus amount for managers to just $250. In at least one store, a raise freeze had been implemented to maintain the change. Despite the launch of its Community Action Fund which cited the “already stressful scenario” of the pandemic being “compounded when faced with financial constraints and the inability to feed your family,” on June 12, Empire announced to its Sobeys employees that it was following Loblaws’ lead and ending its Hero Pay on June 13.

At the same time as grocers began phasing out bonuses paid to their employees across the country, the federal government was making attempts to push a bill through the House of Commons that would establish harsh punishments (including jail time) for those wrongly claiming the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Meanwhile, voices of food workers across the country continued to raise the alarm of economic coercion into their still hazardous essential positions, having lacked the income before the pandemic to build savings for weathering unemployment without access to the emergency benefit.

“We know we’ve had people in [the store] who skipped quarantine,” a staff member at Foodland told the Indy. “It’s a town of less than two thousand people. [They] just had traveled back to the island the day before, and had been loudly declaring that the self quarantine requirement was ‘bullshit.’”

“Management tried to downplay the whole thing until it hit local Facebook. Now there’s a copy of the quarantine act in our front window but nothing else had been said or done officially. Obviously anyone working minimum wage would love a better wage, but it’s mainly the slap in the face, there. It feels like there is no concern for our safety.”

Thanking Essential Workers

On May 7, it was announced that $3 billion from the federal government and $1 billion from the provinces and territories would be used to increase essential workers’ incomes. The Prime Minister explicitly stated that “if you are risking your health to keep this country moving and you’re still making minimum wage, you deserve a raise.” (In our province, the majority of minimum wage earners are female, designated as “part-time”, and work in the food retail and service industry.) Finally, on June 15 the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Executive Council announced their Essential Worker Support program. In lieu of a wage increase, a one-time lump sum between $600 and $1500 will be paid out to eligible employees through their employers, depending on hours worked between March 14 and July 4.

‘Workers supporting grocery’ are listed on the federal government’s Guidance on Essential Services page, which the province has referred to as the eligibility criteria for the bonus. But the majority of grocery staff in Newfoundland and Labrador are part-time. This means the hourly threshold criteria puts them near the lowest end of the payscale. The program has also been designed so that employers apply for and administer the benefit on behalf of employees. The same employers who have profited enormously due to COVID-19 would now receive public funds to compensate their own employees for inadequate wages.

Labour advocates disagree that a one-time payment is sufficient compensation to low-wage earners. Instead, they are imploring the province to reconsider a minimum wage increase to $15 over the next two years, and to address the long-standing income inequalities which still exist. In February, the NDP Caucus published answers to their minimum wage survey, which successfully captured how these inequities present through low wage earners’ own voices. As expected, food was mentioned often as something they struggled to access: “There’s more times than not that I have little to no food in my fridge,” said one respondent. In response to what a $15 minimum wage would mean to them, answers such as “I could actually buy fruit and vegetables”, “It would allow me to adequately house, feed and clothe my children”, and “I wouldn’t have to sacrifice my food quality” were recorded.

By contrast, the observations and recommendations shared in the minimum wage review committee’s report were contrastingly reflective of employer groups’ unsubstantiated claims that increasing the minimum wage “would have a negative economic impact on all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.” The Employers’ Council even lobbied the committee to remove section 30 of the Labour Standards Act to end the required review every two years, and multiple employer organizations recommended “removing politics” from wages. Yet researchers have been arguing for decades that it is the very depoliticization of income issues—directly related to poverty and hunger—that allows governments to ignore their obligation to ensure fundamental human rights like access to food.

“After the virus, I’d like a living wage but that’s not going to happen. Grocery margins are frighteningly thin and that’s not going to improve,” one employee conceded. “No customer is going to tolerate paying more for their food so that we can get an increase. Outside of pay, being treated like a person by customers and management alike needs to happen. In all the time I’ve been here I can’t recall the staff so universally frustrated.”

“Eventually, this pandemic will end and if we’re all still here, we’ll still be making minimum wage. How do you fight a corporation?”

UPDATE (17 June 2020, 4:00 PM)—An earlier version of this article stated that Sobeys did not assist Foodland franchisees with the ‘hero pay’ program. In fact, after franchisees contested the unfairness of this arrangement, Sobeys did provide some assistance to Foodland stores with the extra pay (through reduced bonus pay to managers). The Independent regrets its initial error.

Photo by Makenna Entrikin.

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