Op-Ed: Hero-pay raises are the least we can do for frontline workers

December 9, 2020

Note: this op-ed originally ran in the Edmonton Journal on December 9, 2020.

Written by Sydney Sheloff and Brett Lambert

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused lockdowns for much of Canada’s economy back in March, an interesting thing happened. The contributions of those working minimum wage or low-income jobs – whether they were grocery store cashiers, delivery drivers, warehouse workers fulfilling online shopping orders, aides in long-term care facilities, among others – were now considered essential. It became immediately clear that their work needed to continue in order to make sure food and other goods were readily available to the public. The only problem? Their essential work did not provide them with a living wage that allowed them to sufficiently provide for themselves, their families, and reach basic financial security.

In order to address this disparity and to make sure these workers still showed up in the face of tremendous risk, workers at major grocery chains such as Loblaws, Save-on-Foods, and Safeway were given a temporary pay raise – usually $2 per hour – in acknowledgment of their hard work.

This increase – often called “hero pay” – was a boon for these workers. Many reported feeling greater financial security, being able to afford their bills without having to choose which ones to pay, and worker morale improved with a sense they were more appreciated by their employer. However, by the summer time, the grocery chains phased out their bonus pay as the economy started to re-open and active cases of COVID-19 were declining.

Now that Canada and much of the world is experiencing a brutal second wave of infections that has surpassed the worst of the first wave, it is time for hero pay to be brought back to the table.

The Edmonton Social Planning Council’s latest edition of Tracking the Trends keeps track of short-term and long-term trends in Edmonton’s social well-being. The evidence is clear that normalizing a living wage for essential services is long overdue, especially during a public health emergency like this.

An average of 117,300 employed persons were earning less than the living wage in the Edmonton area, which we have calculated to be $16.51 per hour as of 2019. Almost two-thirds of these workers are women. The cost of living in Edmonton continues to increase steadily over time with inflation increasing by 17.8% and food costs rising at double the rate of inflation over the last 20 years. With the pandemic requiring everyone to isolate, many are turning to food delivery services to remain safe and as a result, they are burdened with additional fees for delivery. These trends suggest these living costs will not be improving anytime soon.

Keeping wages stagnant does not serve those who are literally risking their lives to make sure food is stocked on store shelves. The added stress of dealing with the uncertainty of customers complying with public health measures – such as wearing a mask – makes their work environment that much more stressful.

To their credit, the grocery chain Sobeys has wisely decided to reinstate this bonus pay to their workers in parts of Manitoba and Ontario where lockdown measures are in place. This indicates they understand the pressures these workers are under. We would strongly encourage other grocery stores – big and small – to show that they value their workers’ contributions by bringing back their own hero pay nationwide, including Edmonton where new emergency measures are in place. Once the pandemic subsides and a vaccine is readily available, this bonus pay should be made a permanent part of their workplace policies as everybody should be able to make a livable income.

After all, do we want these workers to continue to make difficult decisions on whether to pay their heating bill or forgo other expenses? If we are sincere in lauding their work as heroic, these pay raises are the bare minimum we can extend to them.

Sydney Sheloff is Research Officer for the Edmonton Social Planning Council.

Brett Lambert is Community Engagement Coordinator for the Edmonton Social Planning Council.

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