During the COVID-19 pandemic, retail workers have been on the front lines. Through the summer, workers came to rely on asymptomatic testing and trusted Alberta Health Services (AHS) would be able trace COVID-19 cases, notify close contacts, and force businesses to follow social distancing and quarantine laws. 

In mid-September, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government announced it would no longer provide asymptomatic testing. As case counts began to rise sharply, the news broke that contact tracing had fallen so far behind, 3,000 people with COVID-19 would not have their cases investigated. The responsibility to notify people in danger was shifted to the infected individuals. 

The bosses have taken advantage of the situation. Workers have been pressured to come into work even if they are under mandatory self-isolation orders, and even when workers have a confirmed case of COVID-19. For example, a worker at the Cargill meat packing plant told CBC that on April 12 they tested positive for COVID-19, saying, “Cargill called me [three days later] and asked if I could come back to work tomorrow. How can I go back to work, I asked, if my result is positive? They said, even if you are positive, if there’s no symptoms you can go back to work.”  

While contact tracing has fallen behind, bosses have neglected to provide necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), discouraged workers from getting tested, and forbidden infected workers from sharing their positive diagnosis. If the employees speak up, the bosses know they hold the threat of job termination to silence them. While roughly 85 per cent of active cases in Alberta have no known origin, they can remain relatively anonymous while putting workers, their families, and the general public in harm’s way. 

Even though what the bosses are doing is illegal, in most cases, there is often nothing the working class can do to fight for their rights, including in cases that go before the courts. Not only are court cases still backlogged, most working people in vulnerable positions can’t afford a lawyer, nevermind time off work. The UCP also passed Bill 47, the “Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act,” which does the opposite of what it’s name implies. This bill severely limits the right to refuse unsafe work, leaving workers no legal ground to stand on, and emboldens bosses to put workers even more at risk.

Workers attempting to enforce social distancing rules run very serious risks, in most cases doing so without the backing from either management or the law. In Dawson Creek, B.C., a Walmart employee was violently beaten by a shopper for politely requesting mask compliance. A server at a pub in Edmonton asked the same of a customer and was then assaulted with a beer glass, suffering deep lacerations which required 14 stitches on her face. The choices workers face are stark. Often they need to pick between losing their job, dealing with poverty, and a tough job market, all to maintain their health and safety, or facing the wrath of the pandemic and anti-maskers to maintain a meagre living. 

The situation is literally life and death for many workers and cannot continue. The ruling class and their governments have displayed only a desire for profits and have disregarded the health and safety of workers to maintain their profits. The labour movement must take the lead against the second wave. There can be no more inaction on the part of the labour movement. The names of businesses with outbreaks must be released and negligent bosses cannot be allowed to continue to operate with impunity. The labour movement must demand mass workplace testing and the shutdown of all workplaces with infections and must come to the defence of workers who refuse to work when the bosses are unwilling to close unsafe workplaces. The unions must start fighting for worker-controlled health and safety inspections and a plan to provide safe transit to and from work for essential workers. The bosses and their governments have proven themselves incapable of dealing with the pandemic. Only the working class will be able to defeat the second wave.   

The pandemic has led to more exploitative conditions of front-line, low-wage workers and many are put at risk of COVID infection. Many businesses are able to cover up cases of COVID infection, increasing the risk to essential workers even more. We have been able to interview an employee from the Edmonton area in just such a situation, and have agreed to maintain the worker’s anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Where do you work? 

I am currently working at a Sherwood Park location of Shoppers Drug Mart.

What support has your employer provided in light of the pandemic?

They make us clean pretty thoroughly, and we have masks and disposable gloves. That’s about it. There’s not a lot of change otherwise. It’s been a point of contention about masks because my boss has discouraged us from confronting people who are not wearing masks, even though it is legally mandated in Sherwood Park. We asked them if we could politely refuse someone service if they were not wearing one. And they said no, which is actually illegal. [Edmonton has had a mask mandate as of August 1. It has now been extended into early 2021-Ed.] So that’s not great. They’re kind of discouraging it and making it a personal decision. If you were to remind a customer, then you’d probably be in trouble with management, the customer would be mad at you, and it would be a scene.

If I were to tell someone, “No, I don’t want to serve you because you’re not wearing a mask,”  I would be the bad guy in that situation, even though legally I’m in the right. 

Has your compensation been affected by the pandemic? For example, have you received any hazard pay? Or is it pretty much just par for the course, same hours, same pay?

Shoppers is owned by Loblaws, so I think this extends across all of Loblaws. I received, I think it was from maybe March to about June, the $2 an hour hazard-pay bump. But they ended that in early summer. And now, of course, numbers are higher than they were then. And we have all the same cleaning procedures which are required across the store, but we’re not receiving hazard pay anymore.

If you were to describe your working conditions before the pandemic and then now, do you feel there is a radical difference in what you have to put into work?

In customer service, there’s an expectation to touch people and to be close to people, and people get very frustrated when you tell them that you can’t do that. And more than once we’ve had customers get very upset and cause problems in the store. 

We’ve had a few people openly disrespecting the rules and our safety: not wearing masks, coughing on things, even licking products just to spite us. I wish management would step in sooner. I’m a worker, and that’s not my role. That’s not my fight, and it should be the management who’s stepping up and protecting us if they’re going to enforce these rules, which make it really difficult for retailers.

This location of Shoppers has been covering up COVID cases. Can you explain that?

Yeah, there’s been, for sure, one confirmed case, potentially more on staff. There’s been suspicion there’s been more, but I don’t know one hundred per cent. I came in not long ago and it was very, very busy. My manager was not telling everyone what was going on. I think the assistant manager and a couple of other people who work there knew. When I talked to my manager, they were all smiles, all well and good. 

After they  left, one of my co-workers told me, “oh, did you hear about it, so and so is sick.” She said, “I’ll tell you later.” And she pulled me to the side and told me that someone was sick with COVID. But the manager was not telling everybody, because they didn’t want a panic. So I found out second hand, and I didn’t even know at first who it was. We all kind of figured it out by checking the schedule and realizing that one person specifically was crossed off for about two weeks. But no one told me directly. And the person who told me said that she actually wasn’t supposed to tell anybody else. So she said, “oh, I’m telling you this, but you didn’t hear from me because I would get in trouble for telling you.”

It was like an unofficial thing; it wasn’t told directly to me. I disclosed that then to a couple of other people who worked there. And they were totally shocked. They had no idea either. I talked to people who worked there for longer than me who I would have expected to have known. Some people are immunocompromised, older, or live with other family. I felt like they especially had the right to be aware of what was going on.

Has management communicated their publicity expectations regarding the pandemic in direct or indirect ways? Have they threatened anyone with firing?

With my experiences in retail, I don’t have a lot of faith in retailers in general but just based on the harsh nature of the workplace, even prior to COVID. Stuff like not discussing your salary with other people. That’s another thing that’s in our contract. That’s a common thing in retail. It’s actually illegal in some parts of the States, but it’s perfectly legal here for some reason. So, yeah, I think that they would maybe go as far as fire somebody if they knew for sure they were talking or maybe just not schedule you for a long time.

For example, we’re open late, so my manager wouldn’t say anything to me, but then suddenly, I start getting only closing shifts for three weeks, then I’d be thinking, “Okay, you’re punishing me. There’s something going on here.” So there are other things I think that could happen. I think they’d have to have more than a suspicion to fire someone.

So what happened after this case occurred? Has Alberta Health Services ever come to workers at Shoppers and done any contact tracing?

What I heard from co-workers was that Occupational Health and Safety came in to sanitize the store. They spoke with the manager and maybe one or two other people about who was working with that person, but only in a very limited timeframe. They said they’re worried about the 48-hour window, or something to that effect. I thought that was strange because we all work rotating shifts, and most of the team will work with each other within even about a three- or four-day span. So it’s possible that we’ve all had contact with that person. We all wear masks, but we also all use the same till, which is a very small space. We’re not supposed to have more than one person back there, but we often do when it gets busy. They took some precautions, but I’m hesitant to say that they did everything that they could.

Do you, as a retail worker, have anything you’d like to add?

I think the best advice to the general public is if you have an opportunity to advocate for someone working in retail or in a grocery store, please, please do that. A lot of the time, workers may want to enforce a policy to keep you as a customer safe. We even get people who are pro-mask who yell at us because we’re not doing enough. This puts us in kind of a bind because we are surrounded on all sides. The customers are mad, the managers are mad; no one is backing you up. No one’s advocating for workers, and we really need the support.