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Loblaws employees say stores are handling COVID-19 unsafely, putting them at risk

Employee alleges Loblaws handled COVID-19 outbreak at store poorly
Employee alleges Loblaws handled COVID-19 outbreak at store poorly.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include new comments from Loblaws.

On May 11, a Toronto Loblaws shut down temporarily after “a number” of employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the company announced at the time.

Vanessa, a 28-year-old employee at the store in the city’s west end at 650 Dupont St., says that while management wouldn’t tell staff how many people were sick, many departments were told to go home to isolate. Loblaws told Global News after this story was published that a total of 18 confirmed cases stemmed from this location.

Global News has changed Vanessa’s name to protect her identity.

Vanessa ended up being one of the employees to test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 after she said she got infected while working in the store.

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While Vanessa has made a full recovery, she alleges management handled the situation poorly and that she had to advocate for her own self-isolation following exposure. She also felt anxious returning to work.

Read more: Cashiers have ‘always been essential’ — What it’s like to work at a grocery store during COVID-19

As Canada continues the reopening process, front-line workers continue to be vulnerable, and without clear and consistent policies to protect them, they will continue to get sick on the job, says Arjumand Siddiqi, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and the Canada Research Chair in population health equity.

“What happens in this day and age is that when grocery store workers have so much job insecurity, very little income coming in… they don’t have a lot of power to intervene in this process,” said Siddiqi.

Grocery stores that know this are more likely to disregard workers’ needs and place profit as their main priority, Siddiqi said.

Returning to Loblaws following the closure and after she recovered from COVID-19 weighed on her, Vanessa said. 

“Everyone had this feeling of who’s next, and what aren’t they telling us?” she said. “I think they’re worried about offending their customer base instead of protecting their workers.”

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‘I had to advocate for myself to be sent home’

In a statement to Global News, Loblaws said it is committed to transparency with its teams and its customers, has communicated early when positive cases have occurred in-store and has worked “very closely” with public health units to ensure the “continued safety of our team and customers.” That specific store worked very closely with Toronto public health following the outbreak, the company explained.

“Our stores have remained open under the most unusual circumstances, and we have done everything we can to reassure our team members and keep them safe while they’re helping keep Canadians fed during this time,” said Catherine Thomas, senior director of external communication at Loblaw Companies Limited, the parent company of Loblaws stores. 

Coronavirus: Loblaws stores place markers to ensure social distancing
Coronavirus: Loblaws stores place markers to ensure social distancing

But Vanessa says she did not feel cared for by the company before and after she tested positive for the coronavirus and is now wary and nervous during her shifts.

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Initially a part-time worker, Vanessa says she increased her hours at Loblaws in April after her second job shifted to allow her to work from home, freeing up her schedule. 

The weekend of April 25, she worked closely with someone who was later diagnosed with COVID-19, she said. 

At the time, she says she was very careful about social distancing, was only travelling between Loblaws and her home and was not seeing others. 

“I did my grocery shopping there as well to minimize my presence in the community. That’s how I’m sure I got it at Loblaws. I’m sure I caught it from this one person because [they were] was training me,” she said. “We had to share a hand-held device.”

On May 1, Vanessa heard from multiple other employees that the co-worker who trained her had tested positive for the virus. While she usually didn’t work with this particular colleague, she says the company was training employees last minute to work in other departments due to a lack of staff in the store.

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At first, she says management did not realize she had interacted with someone who was positive because of scheduling. She says after telling management she interacted with this co-worker, the company checked CCTV footage.

Read more: Loblaws, Metro to end COVID-19 wage top-up for employees

“I had to advocate for myself to be sent home and to be taken seriously,” she said. 

In the statement to Global News, Thomas states that Loblaws follows public health guidance for what is considered “close contact,” which is being within six feet of an individual for more than 10 to 15 minutes. 

The company determines who has been in close contact with a positive case by using CCTV footage of the store along with interviewing employees. If there has been close contact, that employee is sent home for 14 days since they last were last in contact with the positive case, says Thomas.

Having to do the math with other co-workers as a group to figure out who was exposed without management’s help was frustrating, Vanessa says. Loblaws would not reveal who tested positive due to privacy concerns, she says. 

Thomas confirmed to Global News that it’s “necessary to keep confidential the names of any colleagues who test positive, so employers are unable to share a lot of information.” 

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Kingston-area public health officials order mandatory mask-wearing in indoor public settings
Kingston-area public health officials order mandatory mask-wearing in indoor public settings

Two days after Vanessa went home to isolate, she started to get symptoms of COVID-19.

She says she had piercing headaches so she opted to wear sunglasses in her apartment even at night to cope with the pain. She says she also had a sore throat and a stuffed up nose and felt exhausted. 

Vanessa then went to Women’s College Hospital in Toronto for a test that came back positive. 

“Thankfully, I had no cough. I do know other co-workers that had trouble breathing, so I’m very lucky,” she said. 

The outbreak has made her wonder why masks aren’t mandatory for anyone who walks into the store, she says. That is one simple measure that could be applied to every store they have to keep customers and employees safe, she adds.

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“I think they’re really worried about offending their customers,” she said. 

Additional measures to protect employees were taken at the Dupont store following the outbreak, including expanding the criteria for “close contact” with an infected person, reducing store capacity to 35 people and implementing mandatory temperature checks and masks for employees, Thomas states. The company eventually decided to close the store, she says. 

Global News asked followup questions to Loblaws about its mask policies and why the company has not required all customers to wear masks. The company did not respond by the given deadline.

Read more: Should masks be mandatory? It depends

Outbreaks of the coronavirus at businesses that operate indoors have also brought up whether masks should be made mandatory for customers and for employees. In Kingston, Ont., 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19 are linked to a single nail salon, and the city swiftly made masks required indoors following the outbreak. 

Loblaws does not require customers to wear masks inside their stores — although Toronto and its suburbs passed bylaws this week requiring all to wear masks in indoor public spaces as of July 7.

Global News also asked grocery chains Metro and Sobeys if they require masks in their stores. Metro does not require customers to wear masks in its stores. The company advises customers to wear masks, follow the advice of public health units and comply with public health orders, communications manager Stephanie Bonk said in response to questions as to why it’s not required that customers wear masks.

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Sobeys said in a statement to Global News that their first priority from the start of the pandemic is the safety of their teammates and customers. Masks will be mandatory for customers in Toronto on July 7 in accordance with the new Toronto bylaw. The same requirements are in Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph due to a similar public health order.

Toronto Public Health “actively investigates” clusters of COVID-19 in workplaces across the city, the public health unit told Global News in a statement. It also works directly with workplaces to help them implement prevention measures, including staggered shifts, screenings and how to use personal protective equipment, it said. 

Workplaces can choose to close if an outbreak is declared. Toronto Public Health can order a workplace to close as well, the public health unit explained. 

Can’t rely on ‘corporate goodwill’ towards employees

For grocery store front-line workers coping with the pandemic, being unionized is important as it means workers can advocate for themselves as a collective, instead of as individuals, where they’d have less agency, said Siddiqi. 

“These corporations rely on the fact that there isn’t a common collective voice,” she said. “That’s a really precarious position for workers to be in.”

Loblaws workers have a union, which is UFCW Canada Local 1006A. The union represents 35,000 workers from multiple industries, including grocery stores.

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Coronavirus: Toronto passes bylaw making masks mandatory indoors
Coronavirus: Toronto passes bylaw making masks mandatory indoors

The union supported the decision for the Dupont Loblaws to close following the outbreak, says Joel Thelosen, senior communications representative at Local 1006A. It was aware of multiple cases at that location, which raised alarms at the union, he said.

Currently, the union has been advocating for multiple improvements to work environments for all grocery store workers at various chains, including municipalities passing bylaws to mandate masks be worn in indoor public spaces, says Thelosen. 

“We’re calling on government policy… to not rely on corporate goodwill,” he said. 

More protective policies needed for front-line workers

For 24-year-old Ishita, the Loblaws she works at has not seen a COVID-19 outbreak, but she says the lack of consistent policies and implementation of safety standards makes her feel wary coming in for her shift, she said. 

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Global News has agreed to change Ishita’s name due to fear of reprisal from her employer. Ishita works at a Loblaws in a suburb of Ontario. 

Removing the $2-per-hour wage increase that was implemented in March is disappointing and confusing as the threat of COVID-19 has not disappeared even as Ontario reopens, she said. Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro all ended the $2 wage increase for employees in June.

To explain why the wage increase was removed, Loblaw president Sarah Davis wrote in an email to workers on June 11 that coronavirus has been a part of Canadians lives for more than three months and Loblaws stores have “have settled into a good rhythm,” The Canadian Press reported. 

“With this stability and economies re-opening, we have decided the time is right to transition out of our temporary pay premium,” the email stated. At the time, Unifor called the move to cut the wage “wrong”.

In a statement to Global News, Loblaws said “none of our colleagues” will lose pay for COVID-19-related absences and that the company doesn’t want “anyone to have to choose between work, their health and the safety of others.”

She says she doesn’t understand why all grocery stores do not mandate that all customers need to wear masks when they enter the store, regardless of city bylaws. 

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Read more: These Canadians say they suffered COVID-19 symptoms for months

There’s also a lack of enforcement from her management when it comes to social distancing between employees, she said. Loblaws states on their website that they’ve created multiple new in-store measures to create social distancing between “colleagues and shoppers”. 

“In the workplace, I always tell people… ’Can you take a step back’? No one in the store has a concept of social distancing in the workplace,” she said. “Nobody is educated enough either on social distancing or how to even wear gloves and masks.”

She says management tries to enforce these policies but that they do not behave like they take it seriously, so her co-workers follow them by example.

Ishita says each Loblaws store seems to have different standards, based on speaking to her friends who work at other locations. Her store was initially not disinfecting their carts while other stores were — and they began cleaning the carts only after customers complained, she said.

“If I were to go up and tell management to change something… I feel like it won’t be taken seriously until a customer complains about it,” she said. 

If the store had a COVID-19 outbreak like the one at the Toronto location, Ishita says she doesn’t have confidence that her store would take the necessary precautions. 

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Read more: Coronavirus — Can I refuse to go back to work if I feel unsafe?

“Honestly, I’m nervous. I don’t know how they are going to handle it and I don’t really have that much faith in them,” she said.

Governments need to step in more and create more comprehensive policies around protecting the rights of front-line workers like Ishita in ways that go beyond exposure to COVID-19, says Siddiqi.

Wage security and paid leave is important, as it means workers can live generally healthy lives with less stress, and they don’t feel they need to come into work if they are unwell, she explained.

“Workers are at highest risk because they are there and exposed to customers all the time. Their health and safety should be priority number one, not because we rely on (grocery stores) to make it priority number one, because it should be mandated,” she said. 

“And then you don’t leave it up to a corporation to make decisions about the health and safety of its employees… you make it a public responsibility.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.