Ty Harasemow is the head shop steward at Nelson’s Save-On-Foods location for UFCW 1518. Photo: Tyler Harper

‘We are working the front lines’: Behind the till with a B.C. grocery store employee

A union rep at Save-On-Foods talks about life in the aisles during a pandemic

Ty Harasemow has worked in grocery stores for over a decade, and until now his biggest concern during a shift might have been stocking shelves.

Now, when he steps into Nelson’s Save-On-Foods location, Harasemow is surrounded by reminders he is suddenly an essential service worker in the middle of a global pandemic.

“We are working the front lines. None of us really know if we’re going to get sick…,” said Harasemow.

“To be perfectly honest, we’re taking our precautions. We are so diligent in this store I don’t believe any of our hands can take sanitizer much longer.”

Grocery stores are among the few places people are allowed, out of necessity, to gather. But for employees, many of whom are working for minimum wage, the realities of COVID-19 were not something they signed up for.

Harasemow, a head shop steward representing UFCW 1518 and the approximately 150 employees at the Nelson store, said many of his coworkers deal with some level of panic daily. Others, he added, are more relaxed.

“I don’t want to take away from the fact that yes, there is added stress being so congregated in our store, trying to abide by these rules that we’re socially applying to our customers, and actually fulfill them ourselves while still conducting a business. That’s proven problematic and stressful.”

UFCW 1518 represents workers at stores including Save-On, Safeway and IGA. In Nelson, the changes made at Save-On and Safeway are quickly apparent to customers. Carts are wiped down and hands sanitized at the door. Tape on the floors show how close to stand to others, and which direction to walk in. Plexiglass separates the till from the buyer.

Harasemow says his co-workers and union are generally content with the safety measures introduced by the company, and that he’s impressed by how quickly changes were made in March when lockdowns in B.C. began.

He added Save-On and the union also agreed to a raise of $2 per hour, retroactive to the beginning of March, as so-called hero’s pay during the pandemic.

“That just re-affirmed no types of political issues are going to [keep] us from working together as one right now, and that’s very good to see,” he said.

Dan Goodman, the secretary treasurer of UFCW 247 based in Surrey, mostly agrees with Harasemow’s characterization of union-company relations.

Goodman’s union represents 14,000 grocery store workers across B.C. at stores including No Frills, Extra Foods, Safeway and, in Nelson, the Wholesale Club. While he gives those companies credit for what they’ve done, Goodman also thinks the pandemic will change union expectations once bargaining resumes.

“I certainly think our members are going to be a lot stronger or less inhibited in telling the company how they feel about what their entitlement should be,” he said. “So I think it’s going to make things challenging at the bargaining table, for sure.”

The real issue the members of his union face, Goodman said, is with customers who aren’t respecting the rules or are perhaps becoming too comfortable in stores.

“I think they view the grocery store as a return to normalcy,” said Goodman. “I think people can’t go to a restaurant, you can’t do all these things you normally do in your every day life. You can’t send your kids to the park because it’s covered in yellow tape.

“So I think when they get into the stores, sometimes people forget, which I think is one of the reasons why they are going to the store too much. It’s an excuse to get out and forget about everything going on. They forget about that distance, they forget about having to wait or walk around somebody.”

What that’s meant, Goodman says, is a re-evaluation of a capitalist motto: the customer is always right. Younger staff have had an easier time asserting themselves, he said, while some more experienced staff have been reticent to express their needs with customers.

“We’re telling our members that when someone is in your space, you need to turn to them and say you need to give me my two metres,” he said.

“You have the right to do that, because ultimately you have the right to a safe workplace. So I think that’s been a bit of a challenge. That’s a whole new role, a whole new aspect that probably wasn’t there before.”

And it may not be one experienced in every store.

Harasemow said he’s been touched by how often customers have showed his colleagues patience and gratitude for doing a difficult job in trying times.

“So that’s the biggest thing I have to show appreciation for…,” he said. “We’re all on the same team here, we all want to be on the same page.”

Related:

Nelson grocers: ‘We’re not going to run out of food’

Nelson’s downtown markets to go ahead, but with changes



tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

No active confirmed COVID-19 cases in Interior Health: BCCDC

Numbers from the BCCDC’s dashboard show 193 of the 195 COVID-19 cases in the region have recovered

RDEK urges residents to be prepared for emergencies including flooding, wildfire

The East Kootenay region has been placed on a high streamflow advisory

Hosmer Fire Department sends thank you to anonymous gift donor

A handmade wooden plaque was left in front of the Hosmer firehall on May 28

Castle Project seeking public input

The comment period surrounding the expansion closes on June 23

City seeks public input on new cannabis retail license

The application must first gather approval from city council before being approved by the province

22 new COVID-19 test-positives, one death following days of low case counts in B.C.

Health officials urged British Columbians to ‘stand together while staying apart’

Angel Flight takes flight from Creston after being grounded by COVID-19

Angel Flight is a volunteer-run organization which gives people flights to doctors appointments

Nature Conservancy takes in more lands near Canal Flats

Badgers, bears and birds to benefit from bolstering bunchgrass conservation in Rocky Mountain Trench

Federal aid for care home systems needed ahead of second wave, advocates say

Ontario Long Term Care Association calling for more action

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

B.C. woman, 26, fatally shot by police in Edmundston, N.B.

Police were conducting a well-being check at the time of the incident

Horgan calls for national anti-racism program; will pitch idea to PM, premiers

Premier John Horgan said he’s horrified by the death of George Floyd in the United States

Chilliwack dad rescues two young daughters after truck plunges into lake

“I used every single one of my angels that day,” said Dennis Saulnier

Most Read