Corporate executives at three grocery chains — Loblaws, Metro and Empire Company — faced tough questions during a virtual meeting of the House of Commons industry committee today over their decision to cancel a $2-an-hour pay bump they put in place in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pay bump was put in place in March as panic buying in the early stages of the lockdowns left many stores struggling to keep items on the shelves.
The three corporations announced in early June that they would be ending their pay bumps, all within a few days of each other.
Loblaws brands include Shoppers Drug Mart, Superstore and No Frills. Metro owns Food Basics, Jean Coutu, Metro and other brands, while Empire owns Sobeys and FreshCo.
Eric La Flèche, president and chief executive officer of Metro Inc., Sarah Davis, president of Loblaws Companies Ltd., and Michael Medline, president and CEO of Empire Company Ltd., attended the committee hearing.
All three execs told MPs during their opening statements that their decisions to end the pay increases had been made independently of each other.
Medline sparred briefly with Ontario Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith after the MP asked the three execs if they supported a “progressive minimum wage” and whether they would support government efforts to establish a “living wage.”
“Of course I want fairness for our people but I think it’s disrespectful to ask me on such a complex question to answer in one second,” Medline said. He asked Erskine-Smith if $15 per hour amounts to a living wage. The Liberals committed to a $15 minimum wage in the last election.
“We committed to a $15-an-hour minimum wage far above what you pay your employees,” Erksine-Smith replied, before the committee chair stepped in.
Speaking on a point of order, Alberta Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner intervened in the exchange between Medline and Erskine-Smith. “If one [of the witnesses] would like to argue with a member of Parliament, they should put their name on a ballot,” she said.
During her own questions, Rempel Garner pressed Davis about the profits Loblaws made during the height of the pandemic — and asked whether she’d be willing to work in one of her stores for the money her employees make.
Davis responded by saying the company had made a profit during the panic-buying period, but it had been offset by investments it had made in store safety measures.
As the committee meeting was coming to an end, Medline compared the rollback of the pandemic pay bump to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which Medline called a “wonderful thing.”
“I think people are going to find when they take out the CERB, that [the federal government] is going to face the same issues that we did when we took out the hero pay,” he said.
Pay bump ‘not about safety’
In her opening statement, Davis said Loblaws’ pay bump was not about safety but rather acknowledged the extra work created by panic buying in the early days of the pandemic.
“Paying our people $2 an hour more did not make them safer,” Davis said. “The tens of millions of dollars we have invested in new protections and protocols did.
“Our stores aren’t operating in the way they did pre-COVID. They have stabilized into a new normal routine.”
La Flèche echoed Davis’s point, saying that the bump was a response to workers having to take on new and unfamiliar tasks to deal with panic buying.
In his own opening statement, Medline said the pay bump was temporary and Empire had always made that clear.
All three executives said they were disappointed that only Canadian companies had been invited to testify, and not U.S. companies like Walmart that also ended their pay bump.
Ontario NDP MP Brian Masse questioned the assertion that the pay bump had nothing to do with encouraging employees to continue working at the risk of getting sick.
“I don’t know where you shop, because I shop at your stores and you had to look in the eyes of your employees and you see how scared they were,” Masse said.
Quebec Liberal MP Emmanuella Lambropoulos also questioned the suggestion that the pay bump wasn’t due to the risk faced by workers.
“Everybody that I know considered grocery shopping to be the most risky activity that they engaged in throughout the pandemic. People were afraid of going, they were taking their groceries and sanitizing them the moment they got home,” she said.
The union Unifor represents 20,000 retail workers across Canada, including some at Loblaws and Metro. It said it was disappointed with the move.
“The fact is, the pandemic did not make these workers essential and did not create the inequities in retail. It simply exposed them,” Unifor president Jerry Dias said.
Labour groups have long argued that retail workers don’t get paid enough to begin with, and hoped to make the recent pay increases permanent.
“We have a chance to fix this. We can’t let this opportunity pass,” Dias said.
In a media statement, the United Food and Commercial Workers union said it is “disappointed” with employers that chose to stop the extra pay while the pandemic is still active, and while some provinces still have various precautionary measures in place.
“UFCW Canada acknowledges that premium pay was introduced as part of the COVID-19 response, but the union also expressed that premium pay should be maintained throughout the pandemic.”