I worked as a Loblaws cashier at the height of the pandemic. It didn’t go well

I worked as a Loblaws cashier at the height of the pandemic. It didn’t go well

“The company exceeded 2019’s quarterly revenue by more than $1 billion. Then Galen Weston declared the end of our $2 pay premium”

My first day as a grocery store cashier was April 23, the same day Ontario set a provincial record with 634 new cases of Covid-19. I was 22 years old and had just finished my journalism degree from Ryerson. Though I lived with my parents at the time and had minimal expenses, I was keen to work. My partner and I had decided to move in together, but first I wanted to save up at least six months of living expenses as a safety net, which meant roughly $15,000. The monthly instalments of $1,250 offered by the federal government wouldn’t get me close. So I trawled the job sites and mindlessly clicked “Apply Now” on every job I felt remotely qualified for.

A few days later, a Loblaw HR manager called. There was no interview, no background check. But I did have a lot of retail experience, so maybe that was enough. The only things she asked of me were my Social Insurance Number and when I could start. She told me I would be a cashier at a Loblaw subsidiary called Fortinos, at Allen Road and Lawrence Avenue. The hourly rate, she said, would be “$14 plus two,” by which she meant the temporary pay raise for all hourly employees, which Loblaw chair Galen Weston had announced roughly a month earlier in recognition of the extraordinary demands being placed on grocery store workers. Weston had also announced the measures the company was taking to protect workers and customers, among them installing plexiglass shields at checkout counters and securing personal protective equipmentthough he acknowledged that the PPE supply would be inconsistent. Reading the announcements reassured me that the company was taking the virus seriously. I accepted.

There were three other trainees starting the same day. At that point, face coverings for employees were recommended but not mandatory. I expected they’d have one for me, so I didn’t bring my own. I was wrong. Diane, an assistant manager, led us to the managers’ office, located deep in the recesses of the stockroom, to sign documents. The space was small and cramped, maybe 300 square feet, but the computer desks and industrial printers, along with a grey foldable table right in the centre, made it feel downright claustrophobic. Two managers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, discussing inventory, both maskless. A bakery manager sat at one end of the desk eating his lunch, no mask. Another manager sat by a computer, reviewing paperwork, unmasked. There we were, eight of us, all without masks, in a space no larger than a garden shed, for at least an hour.

Once the documents were signed, Diane took us for a tour of the store. I noticed with some concern that there were no arrows on the floors to help customers avoid crossing paths. We toured the break room, a 100-square-foot space with two small tables, enough space for four workers. Every lunch break was a crapshoot—more often than not I found myself face-to-face with another worker, unmasked, as we ate our lunches.

Next, I was taken to the checkout area, where, as a cashier, I’d spend the vast majority of my working hours. Going in, I pictured I’d be in a tiny plexiglass cubicle, protected on all sides. What it turned out to be was two asymmetrical plastic sheets—one in front and one behind, with nothing to the right or the left of me, where customers would be bagging groceries just two feet away. Each cashier had a bottle of sanitizer and spray, and I was told I would be responsible for disinfecting my own station and checkout lane. That was fine with me, but my supply of paper towel rolls often ran out and I’d have to borrow from a colleague.

In my second week, masks and rubber gloves became mandatory for all staff. Overnight, the store’s face-covering policy went from totally optional to hardcore. I guess that was better, but if I pulled down my mask momentarily for a sip of water, my manager would scold me. And it was hard to communicate with customers, especially seniors. It was almost comical at times: we’d be standing there hollering at each other with no success. Still, none of the staff complained—we all understood the measures were in place to keep others safe.

The complaints, for the most part, came from the customers. Some refused to place their items on the conveyor belt until I’d sprayed it down with disinfectant. Others complained that the belt was wet, despite my telling them that it was wet because it was sanitized. We were told not to bag groceries, and customers would get mad, and when I’d explain I wasn’t allowed to for safety reasons, they’d become irate.

I expected to interact with a large number of people each day, but I wasn’t prepared for the mental strain of those interactions. In an eight-hour shift, I would help more than 100 customers, and I became hyperaware of every cough, trying to gauge exactly how dry they sounded. Every mild headache or sore muscle I experienced would trigger a feeling of dread. I’m young and in relatively good health, but getting sick felt inevitable.

At least we could go to the washroom regularly to wash our hands? No. The soap dispenser in the men’s employee washroom ran out in my second week, and remained empty, despite requests to fill it, for all of May and the better part of June. Two of three taps stopped working as well and there was seldom any paper towel. I took to going about my business in the customer washroom instead, which was more consistently stocked.

The store soon implemented forehead temperature checks and the rule was that if the thermometer read 38 degrees, we would be sent home. One day, my temperature read 37.7. I said to my wellness supervisor, “That seems awfully close to 38.” She handed me a mask, said, “Don’t worry” and told me to start my shift.

In early May, while living temporarily with my partner, and I found myself taking my anxieties home with me. After walking in the door, I would take a long hot shower and then wait hours before going near my partner. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might be infected, I felt dirty, like there was a stain on me that I couldn’t scrub out. And if anything happened to my loved ones, it would all be my fault.

As fatalities in Ontario continued to climb, my managers became increasingly strict about overseeing our pandemic tasks. We were constantly reminded to disinfect our stations. Every few minutes, a manager would come by and remind me that customers had been complaining about how often we cashiers were putting our hands near our face to adjust our masks. I appreciated their diligence, but the work was stressful enough without the regular hectoring. My anxieties began to mount.

Face coverings were never made mandatory for customers, and, as May turned to June, the percentage of those who wore them dropped. In an average shift, roughly half of the customers I checked out were maskless—that’s 50-odd potential carriers inches from my face.

But what could I do? I needed the job, and the pay, especially with the two-dollar-an-hour bump, really did make a difference. The company, at this point, seemed to be thriving. In late April, it was reported that Loblaw’s first quarter revenue had exceeded that of 2019 by more than $1 billion, with $240 million in net earnings available to common shareholders. Yet on June 11, in a letter to PC Optimum members, Weston declared the end of the pay premium. “We are confident our colleagues are operating safely and effectively in a new normal,” he wrote.

That same day, my manager informed me that hours for cashiers were being cut. She told me to expect 15 to 20 hours of work per week, about half of what I had been working to that point, with no explanation as to why. The decrease in pay and the cut to my hours meant I would now be earning less than the $1,250 I was entitled to through CESB. I asked my manager when the pay decrease would be starting. She told me she had no idea that was happening, and that she’d get back to me. Speaking to my co-workers, most of them didn’t know about it either. The ones that did told me they’d heard from the news.

On June 22, I notified my manager I was resigning. Now I’m unemployed, and it’s scary. I have rent to pay. But grocery store work just isn’t a viable alternative. Putting my future on hold for the sake of my physical and mental health is a price I’m willing to pay.

In response to Lucas’ piece, Loblaw issued the following statement: We have been in touch with the franchisee who has assured us that all pandemic measures are in place and being followed. He was not made aware of the employee’s concerns before this. It is our sincere desire to provide our employees and customers a safe environment to work and shop, and as such would urge anyone with concerns to speak to us so we can try to mitigate any issues as best we can.” Loblaw Corporation also said that the company made extensive efforts to provide masks and other PPE to employees, even before those measures were mandatory, and that they secured hand soap and sanitizers even when the global supply chain made that challenging. They say that employees at all Loblaw stores received notice that the pay premium was being stopped before Galen Weston made a public announcement to that effect.