RELEASE: UFCW Local 401 demands safety protections and pandemic pay for food workers


November 2, 2020

Calgary, AB – Confronting pandemic complacency, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 is calling on employers and policymakers to ramp up safety protections and immediately reinstate pandemic pay premiums for essential workers.

“The second wave of this pandemic is in full swing,” said UFCW Local 401 President, Thomas Hesse. “We are seeing a sharp increase in positive COVID-19 cases and further workplace outbreaks, including multiple cases at a Superstore in Calgary. These trends are terrifying, especially for workers who are still being told they are too essential to ‘stay home’ and that they no longer deserve pandemic pay premiums.”

“Throughout this pandemic, people still needed to eat,” said Shelley-Anne Goulet, a UFCW member and employee at a Co-op grocery store in Red Deer. “We were told we needed to stay open and come to work regardless of our feelings about it. We needed to get paid, so it’s not like we really had a choice.”

“Essential workers have been told they must come to work to provide key services to the public,” said Karamjit Ryan, a UFCW member working at a Safeway pharmacy in Edmonton. “When the company took away pandemic pay, we felt like we went from ‘heroes’ to ‘zeroes.’”

COVID-19 positive cases reported in Alberta are higher than ever, and UFCW Local 401 reports that 67 Alberta worksites represented by the union have been impacted by positive cases so far, ranging from a single case to more than 950 cases at a single site, most notably at Cargill High River. The union reports a sharp uptick in reported cases in recent weeks and contends that pandemic profiteering, complacency, and weak government policy are allowing COVID-19 to thrive in Alberta workplaces.

“Alberta reopened after the first wave of this pandemic without understanding why certain sectors were impacted more than others,” said Hesse. “Now we are into the second wave, and there are still no province-wide regulations protecting Alberta’s food workers, just some municipal by-laws on masks that are – on the ground – being left up to frontline workers to enforce. Our calls for regulation have been ignored, and now workers are getting sick again. This free market ideological approach to a public health crisis is ludicrous, irresponsible, and nothing short of reckless.”

Municipal by-laws requiring that customers wear masks and observe physical distancing rules are often unenforced at the store level, the union contends, adding that store managers are often hesitant to show customers the door or enforce customer limits in stores. The union says that food processing plants operate often without regulation and with predictably inconsistent health and safety protocols.

While nearly all food industry employers introduced some form of pandemic pay premiums at the onset of the pandemic, but the union notes that nearly all such initiatives have been scaled back or eliminated.

“They clapped for us in April, which was nice,” said Amanda, a UFCW member working at the Olymel pork plant in Red Deer. “But we’re risking our lives coming here. The pandemic is still here. The only thing that’s gone away is the financial recognition for our work. All we have left is a sign on the fence saying that our work is valued.”

The union says some food processors are increasing workloads, line speeds, and production targets to meet rising food demand while also ending certain safety measures put in place in the Spring, such as staggered lunch breaks. Retail workers are bracing for a busy holiday shopping season. Food workers are facing COVID-19 in pressure cooker intensified by widespread complacency, the union says.

“We are bracing for something terrible,” said Hesse. “The pandemic’s health consequences extend beyond COVID-19 itself. Not only are the same workers facing virtually the same risks they faced in the Spring, they are also doing so with less money in their pockets and increased complacency from employers. Meanwhile, the billionaire employers that run our food industry are profiting handsomely from the pandemic while refusing to adequately protect and financially recognize the extraordinary efforts of their employees. This adds insult to injury. Employers need to ensure safer workplaces during this second wave, and they must reinstate pandemic pay now.”


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About UFCW Local 401

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 is the largest private-sector union in Western Canada and represents 32,000 Alberta workers mainly in the food processing and retail sectors.

Further resources

Government of Alberta. Cases in Alberta.

Lan F, Suharlim C, Kales SN, et al. “Association between SARS-CoV-2 infection, exposure risk and mental health among a cohort of essential retail workers in the USA.” Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Published Online First: 30 October 2020. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2020-106774

Media Contacts

Thomas Hesse, President, UFCW Local 401

Richelle Stewart, Secretary-Treasurer, UFCW Local 401
780.452.0362 ex.1331

Michael Hughes, Communications Coordinator