A plexiglass barrier is pictured creating a barrier to protect a cashier at a grocery store in North Vancouver, B.C. Sunday, March 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

B.C.’s essential grocery, hardware store employees should get pandemic pay: retail group

Only B.C.’s social, health and corrections workers are eligible for top-ups

A group representing retailers across Canada isn’t happy that retail workers deemed essential during the COVID-19 crisis are ineligible for pandemic pay.

“We were very disappointed, especially after the prime minister specified grocery and pharmacy workers,” said Greg Wilson, director of government relations for Retail Council of Canada said.

A top-up for essential workers was announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on May 7, although details were left up to each province and territory.

Later that same day, B.C. announced that 250,000 frontline workers would be eligible for the top-up, doled out as a lump-sum payment through employers. The province said it will amount to an extra $4 per hour for up to 16 weeks of work, retroactive to March 15. In B.C., only workers in corrections, social services and health services are eligible for the top-up.

READ MORE: ‘Pandemic pay’ to give temporary wage top-up to 250,000 B.C. front-line workers

Speaking by phone to Black Press Media Tuesday (May 26), Wilson said essential workers at grocery, hardware and other stores that have remained open during the pandemic should be getting compensation. Essential workers who quit are not eligible for the $500 per week Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

These “essential workers have kept economy going and kept Canadians fed,” Wilson noted.

“They are ealing with a customer base and employees who are also more anxious.”

READ MORE: Post-COVID grocery store sales high but below the mid-March peak, StatCan says

In a statement, the finance ministry said pandemic pay increases were meant for health and social service workers who are supporting the most vulnerable during COVID-19.

“Grocery stores are able to keep their employees safe and healthy by following social distancing guidelines. Many are doing well financially through COVID and passing benefits on to employees, which is something we all should be doing if we can.”

READ MORE: B.C. issues guidelines about distancing, reusable bags to grocery stores amid COVID-19

Although some retailers have announced pay top-ups, including Save-On Foods and Loblaws, they are beginning to phase out the programs. According to the union representing Save-On Foods, the company is ending its $2 per hour top-up. Loblaws’ program has been extended to June 13, while Walmart ended its top-up at the end of April. Black Press Media has reached out to the companies for more details.

Wilson said that even disregarding the corporate pay top ups, there’s another issue at play.

“A lot of British Columbians have jobs working for small independent retail businesses, including fish mongers and small shops,” he said.

“Those owners have been really pressed financially, just to survive. To imagine they’d have the ability to top people up would be unthinkable.”

In response, the finance ministry said B.C.’s COVID-19 Action Plan provided $5 billion in income supports, although many do not target small retailers specifically. The $ billion plan includes employer health deferrals for businesses with a payroll of more than $500,000, while smaller businesses were already exempt from the tax, which replaced the Medical Services Plan. Tax filing deadlines for the provincial sales tax (PST), municipal and regional district tax, tobacco tax, motor fuel tax and carbon tax have also been delayed until Sept. 30.

Increases scheduled for April 1 for the provincial carbon tax, new PST registration requirements for e-commerce and the increased tax on sweetened carbonated drinks will be delayed until at least this fall.

Aside from B.C.’s effort, small businesses are also eligible for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program if they have lost at least 70 per cent of their revenue, as well as for an interest-free loan of up to $40,000, part of which can be forgiven. The wage subsidy is available to help cover 75 per cent, or up to $847 each week.

READ MORE: Here’s what B.C.’s COVID-19 plan has for you


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