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How grocery store workers are being 'overlooked' during the pandemic: U of G research

'I think there are important people within our food system who are sometimes overlooked'
20210318 Emily Duncan AD
Emily Duncan, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph. Supplied photo

Local research on the current pandemic experiences of grocery stores workers may help lead to the development of policies to protect them in future outbreaks.

Emily Duncan is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Guelph who specializes in food security and agricultural technology. She is working on this research with Eric Nost, a professor in the department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics. 

“My research broadly focuses on the food system, and I think there are important people within our food system who are sometimes overlooked,” says Duncan, “and grocery store workers are definitely one of them. Grocery stores have to stay open, they are our only source of food.”

With her mother being a grocery store worker for years, and was working during the pandemic, Duncan says her stories inspired her to look into these experiences

“I thought, I’m here in Guelph, and are the same things happening here?” she says, “And how are grocery store workers experiencing that in this context?”

So, Duncan set out to learn more about the pandemic’s impact on people working in local stores. She spoke with around 30 grocery store workers, asking them about their role.

“All the workers that I interviewed are from stores that Guelph frequents,” she says, “It’s not something abstract that’s happening over there, it’s responses from our community.”

The interviews talked about toilet paper, panic buying and the rise in self-checkout and Instacart shoppers. Duncan says she also got feedback from workers about the protective measures that were added to grocery stores.

“A lot of workers agreed that those things made them feel a lot safer,” she says about PPE, plastic barriers and other measures put in place.

Duncan also talked to workers about their interactions with customers. While workers reported feeling appreciated, she says many also recounted stories about people who did not behave properly in public during the pandemic.

“The atmosphere in the grocery store changed a bit, and the fact that it was the only public place open, it was a source of tension for people who had to actually go out,” Duncan explains.

“I think that there was a lot of unexpected emotional labour that was put on these workers. From having to deal with disgruntled customers, trying to explain new rules and procedures to people on how to move within the grocery store...and the workers who I spoke with were really resilient.”

This research also looked into hazard pay, which was given between March 2020 and June 2020.

Duncan says workers were a bit confused when hazard pay was gone, because they felt the hazard was still here.

“The second wave came and went, and the numbers were higher than before and we’re now in the start of the third wave and these workers haven’t seen any additional compensation,” she says.

CERB also came up in these interviews, with workers acknowledging that they appreciate the federal government being quick to help Canadians, but questioning how fair the distribution was.

“It did rub some people the wrong way that people were staying home making $500 a week, where some grocery stores workers, working full-time, don’t even make that much,” says Duncan.

During these interviews, workers were also asked about how they saw their jobs within the pandemic, and many reported feeling a sense of pride for their role in helping others.

“It is essential work, and I think there was a bit of shift in perspective about how they saw themselves and their jobs and their work.”

For Duncan, these accounts speak about some of the ways we treat workers here in Canada. 

Once the data is analyzed and published into a report, she hopes to get the report into the hands of local policymakers to help enact changes, including living wages and paid sick days.

“In sharing the results, that when the public hears about this, they’ll take a step back and remember that I’m not entitled to all the food in the grocery store and it doesn’t appear magically,” she says, “People put in hard work to make this possible, to make sure I have access to food, and to behave respectfully and accordingly.”


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Ariel Deutschmann

About the Author: Ariel Deutschmann

Ariel Deutschmann is a feature writer and reporter who covers community events, businesses, social initiatives, human interest stories and more involving Guelph and Wellington County
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