What it’s like for retail workers still clocking in during Omicron

Anna works seven days a week, logs well over 40 hours and doesn’t think she’s been on a proper break in weeks.

“It’s insane,” said the Ottawa grocery store employee of her shifts at the Loblaws on the corner of Rideau and Nelson streets.

“By the end of the day, my whole body is in so much pain because I’m doing everybody’s job.”

Staff shortages due to COVID-19 infections, busier-than-normal store traffic fed by the closure of Quebec grocers on Sundays, angry and yelling customers — those are just some of the headaches facing Ontario retail workers like Anna as they report for work during the Omicron wave.

“A lot of people are testing positive right now,” she said. “We had one of our managers test positive, and I think it’s scaring a lot of people.”

Anna — whom CBC News agreed not to fully identify over her concerns about losing her job — said it all makes for a very stressful work environment with high turnover.

“People are starting and then they’re leaving the next day,” she said.

Interview no-shows, high absenteeism

Retail stores across the province are dealing with similar staffing pressures amid Omicron.

Many people scheduled for interviews are simply not showing up, while some businesses are seeing absenteeism rates of up to 20 per cent, according to a statement from the Retail Council of Canada.

“The lack of available testing is creating issues for many retailers because staff with cold symptoms can’t confirm whether or not they have COVID,” the statement said.

When workers do test positive, some retailers have even had to close for up to 48 hours, the council said.

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Mikayla Odut, who works at a grocery store, and Debora De Angelis, spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada, say working through yet another wave of COVID-19 infections is often a stressful and even lonely experience. 1:20

‘A humongous mental health toll’

When a coworker tests positive for COVID-19, employees often worry they’re going to get sick too, said Debora De Angelis, the Ontario regional director for United Food and Commercial Workers.

Underpaid workers with symptoms that may be COVID-19 are still going to work in order to make ends meet, she said.

“That’s why their coworkers want to make sure that they’re protected, and the public is protected, with N-95 masks, with rapid tests,” De Angelis said.

“It’s heartbreaking. Nobody wants to admit that they’re making those choices, but those choices are being made.”

It’s important that governments provide workers needed mental health support, De Angelis added.

“Going to work every single day and watching their co-workers get sick, their families get sick, holidays get eliminated — this is taking a humongous mental health toll on these workers.”

The fact grocery store employees work so closely with the public puts them at higher risk of catching COVID-19, said Gary Sands, vice-president of government relations for the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. (CBC)

Grocery store employees are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because their jobs involve close contact with the public, said Gary Sands, vice-president of government relations for the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

“[They’re] having to stock shelves and replace produce and also [closely communicate] on the store floor and with the cashiers, with the public,” he said.

Anna estimated she helps over 100 customers a day.

“It’s scary to me to know that I’m going to come in contact with someone that I work with that could be positive — and then see a hundred customers, you know?”

Loblaw Companies Ltd. did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘We literally have no backup’

For grocery store butcher Mikayla Odut, being separated from her coworkers is its own source of stress and leaves her feeling out of the loop.

“You get less connection with other people,” she said.

“When COVID is running rampant like it is right now, we can’t have floor meetings, which I thought was really fun just to connect with people. You just can’t have anything. Everyone’s just stuck in their little department and [you] have to hope that some information comes your way.”

I would have literally loved even like five hours for someone to help with anything.– Ottawa grocery store worker Mikayla Odut

Odut has also been feeling the pressures of increased Quebec foot traffic and fewer staff to cover shifts.

Normally, people would be hungry for extra work hours, she said, but not right now.

“As soon as one person calls in sick, it’s like we literally have no backup,” Odut said.

Employees have asked for extra help on Sundays to shoulder the increase in customers, to no avail, she added.

“I would have literally loved even like five hours for someone to help with anything.”

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