Editor’s note: The author has been kept anonymous for privacy reasons and to prevent identification by the employer
Most people I know would pinpoint mid-March 2020 when COVID-19 changed life as we know it. For myself, as a part-time worker at Shoppers Drug Mart, there were signs of what was to come over a month earlier. It started with the store running out of masks and latex gloves as some customers sent supplies to their families in China who were dealing with the outbreak.
As news of the outbreak spread alongside panic, hand sanitizer began to fly off the shelves. I assured customers that frequent handwashing would do just as well, and that the virus hadn’t even been reported in Canada yet. In a matter of weeks, I would be desperately asking customers to maintain their distance from myself and each other.
In the last two weeks of March, 2020, I finished my remaining university courses online and was immediately thrust into the role of “essential worker”. This is a summary of what I experienced as a cashier, supervisor, and post office clerk at Shoppers Drug Mart in the last year.
Working at a pharmacy in April 2020 was chaotic, to say the least. My store is normally very busy around Easter, with sales comparable to those at Christmas, and this crowding was exacerbated by the fact that all non-essential businesses were closed. Lineups at the cash stretched down the aisles.
I experienced treatment from customers that ranged from being thanked for working to being scolded for going too slowly and taking precautions. I talked to customers who themselves were essential workers, and customers who had family members in hard-hit countries like China and Italy. The solidarity was palpable.
Masks were provided for staff and encouraged, but only mandated for employees working directly in the pharmacy.
Soon enough, plexiglass barriers were installed at the cash and lottery sales were stopped. Masks were provided for staff and encouraged, but only mandated for employees working directly in the pharmacy.
Early on I inquired in our staff group chat about paid quarantine leave, but was only told that it wasn’t company policy yet and was urged to stay home if sick (presumably without pay). Shoppers Drug Mart eventually implemented a paid leave and “pandemic pay” (a $2/hour raise) retroactive to March 8. This meant that I made about as much as the $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) each month.
May marked the initial reopening in Ontario. Having worked incredibly hectic shifts for the entirety of the lockdown, I barely took notice.
At my store, we started selling lottery tickets again, much to the reluctance of cashiers. We pointed out to each other various safety issues with lottery sales: it encourages customers to visit the store unnecessarily, it holds up lines and keeps people in the store longer, and when allowing a customer to select scratch tickets, you’re forced to be in close face-to-face proximity to the side of the plexiglass barrier.
Scheduling problems that began in April persisted. We were receiving our schedules only two weeks in advance instead of three, and rarely getting two consecutive days off.
By June, store traffic had slowed down and I was getting significantly fewer hours. Most importantly, our pandemic pay was stopped. All of us were outraged and thought the wage increase ought to have been permanent, especially given the huge pandemic revenues and profits made by Loblaws, which owns Shoppers Drug Mart.
All of us were outraged and thought the wage increase ought to have been permanent
I found out through an assistant manager that Loblaw actually never paid for those higher wages. The cost was downloaded onto the individual pharmacy owners.
Despite cases skyrocketing months later, pandemic pay was never re-implemented. Towards the end of the month, I quit my job to work a seasonal contract elsewhere, only to return in time for the second wave of COVID-19.
I was re-hired at Shoppers at the end of October, and for the next month, a number of safety issues were becoming apparent. I was relieved that by this time masks had been mandated by the Ontario government for all indoor spaces; it seems unfathomable to me now that I worked at the start of the pandemic with most customers and staff not wearing them.
However, mask-wearing was not enforced in my store. I clarified our policy with an assistant manager, and was informed that we could offer customers masks, but we were not allowed to refuse them service and make them leave the store if they refused to wear them.
While there are certainly issues with enforcement of this kind being left up to underpaid retail workers, the fact remains that my store is doing next to nothing about the presence of anti-maskers in my workplace. One of them is a regular; he is always wearing a baseball hat with an InfoWars logo [InfoWars is run by Alex Jones, a Trump-supporting conspiracy theorist]. At the cash I serve him as quickly as possible, trying to avoid prolonging his time in the store in any way.
…the “disinfectant” we had been directed to use by corporate since June had been about as effective as spraying surfaces with water.
We had a strict disinfection protocol in place, and around this time we received stock of a new kind of disinfectant for store use. I was instructed by my front store manager to stop using our old cleaning substance that we had been given, and was simply told that “the new one is better”. When I asked an assistant manager why we switched, they revealed that the “disinfectant” we had been directed to use by corporate since June had been about as effective as spraying surfaces with water. As someone who took their cleaning duties pretty seriously, I was furious.
By November the store was becoming busy again with Christmas shoppers. Over the course of the pandemic, and despite big profits reaped by the company, sales and promotions continued. People were effectively being encouraged to shop for non-essentials, at the expense of us workers.
At one point, an employee tested positive for COVID-19, and staff were notified by management immediately. Luckily, this employee hadn’t worked at the store during the 48-hour period before the onset of their symptoms, when they would have been the most infectious. Through contact tracing it was known that they picked up the virus from a family member and not at our workplace. They quarantined at home and recovered.
The Christmas season was like Easter all over again, with the store remaining extremely busy even following Christmas Eve when a province-wide lockdown was in effect (no thanks to Doug Ford for delaying this shutdown).
People were effectively being encouraged to shop for non-essentials, at the expense of us workers.
I was also working in the post office where we had record volumes of mail, many of the packages being returns to big box retailers like Amazon and Zara.
My store location has always staid open 365 days a year. During a pandemic, it was no different: I myself worked on Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Years Eve, and New Years Day.
Even though a provincial stay-at-home order was issued, you wouldn’t have known it if you were only ever inside a Shoppers Drug Mart. It became a running joke among the staff that people were using our store as an escape from lockdown.
Some of use were now beginning to lose hours – half an hour was taken off daytime cashier shifts, and two hours off evening supervisor shifts.
…it became an open secret that they had been allowed to return to the workplace without isolating or getting a negative test result, because they were asymptomatic.
Towards the end of the month, staff were notified that another employee tested positive for COVID-19. Over the course of the next several days, I noticed that the schedule hadn’t changed, and no one was missing. The identity of the worker was not revealed to protect their privacy, but word got around between staff members and it became an open secret that they had been allowed to return to the workplace without isolating or getting a negative test result, because they were asymptomatic.
We all know how this virus spreads by now; none of us thought this decision made sense. We did not blame our co-worker of course, but quickly lost trust in the ability of upper management to keep us safe at work during a pandemic.
I took it upon myself to report this incident to the Ontario Ministry of Labour. To this day I have not heard anything about this case I reported.
Finally, local bylaw officers and inspectors from the Ministry of Labour had begun to inspect “big box” stores for safety issues relating to COVID-19.
I was initially relieved to hear that large grocery retailers and stores like mine would be visited, but this feeling quickly dissipated when I learned that these inspectors were cracking down on so-called “breakroom behaviour”. In other words, they were micromanaging workers’ actions during our leisure time rather than focusing on what puts us at risk while we’re on the clock.
There was also a lot of emphasis on surface disinfection protocol, even though the virus is airborne and we are far more likely to become infected that way.
…they were micromanaging workers’ actions during our leisure time rather than focusing on what puts us at risk while we’re on the clock.
As if a COVID-19-positive employee coming into work and ineffective safety inspections weren’t enough to heighten my distrust of those who were supposed to protect me, communication issues around vaccination had arisen as well.
My local health department recently distributed a memo listing medical clinic, dentist office, and pharmacy workers as being eligible for the vaccine. I saw this memo only because a close friend of mine who works at a different drug store sent it to me, remarking that his boss strongly encouraged all store staff to get the vaccine.
I found out that this same memo was shown to the pharmacists and pharmacy assistants at my store, but not to the front store staff, until I inquired about it. We were then told that, as clarified by the Shoppers Drug Mart District Manager, employees who didn’t work directly in the pharmacy (i.e. all front store staff) were not eligible yet. Even if the store owner wanted to follow directions given by corporate, all of us still should have been updated – it turns out even the front store manager hadn’t been notified.
This lack of transparency from the owner around upcoming opportunities to get vaccinated is unacceptable. Thanks to my friend (not my employer) who sent me the memo with the link to register for a vaccination appointment, I have since gotten my first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
I have also taken it upon myself to encourage my co-workers to make an appointment and ensure that they have the link. As front store employees, we come face to face with over one hundred customers a day; all of us are at a high risk of exposure to COVID-19.
I have felt pride in being an essential worker: keeping shelves stocked, getting mail sent out, and serving people during a once-in-a-century pandemic. I am young, healthy, and willing to do this work. But I am nonetheless frustrated with my working conditions, which could be made safer even under the circumstances.
Shoppers Drug Mart evidently prioritizes sales over worker safety by continuing to have weekend promotions. The company and upper management were slow to implement protections and protocols at the onset of the crisis.
Upper management allowed an employee who tested positive for COVID-19 to return to work, and did not fully communicate updates on local vaccination efforts.
…we will only measurably improve our working conditions when we get organized.
Many issues typical of retail work continue, such as irregular and unfair scheduling, low pay, and lack of paid sick days for part-time workers.
I wish I could say that we are taking collective action as workers, but truthfully, we are not there yet. We are still responding to problems in our workplace on an individual basis, or just treating them as breakroom gossip and not issues that we can tackle as a group.
Neither the government, nor local public health units, nor upper management can keep us safe during a pandemic.
If the last year has made anything more apparent to me, it’s that we will only measurably improve our working conditions when we get organized.