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Essential workers: Sorry, but memes are not enough

in Opinion by

As Ontario enters its second month of COVID-19 protocols, you don’t have to look too far on social media to find the lionization of many of the essential workers who are on the frontline of combating this deadly respiratory virus.

While doctors, nurses and paramedics have earned well-deserved kudos, it has been especially satisfying to many to see people publicly posting about the very important roles being played by cashiers, personal support workers and truck drivers whose services to society before this pandemic were often marginalized and ridiculed. For the first time in a very long time we are taking a hard look at these kinds of jobs and who works them, and some are developing a whole new appreciation for the risks these individuals are currently taking for little remuneration in return.

Cashiers

My son is a part-time supermarket cashier in Guelph, balancing work with his PhD studies at University of Waterloo. Cameron has always enjoyed being a cashier and has spent the last 13 years part-time and summers working as a cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart, Canadian Tire and Metro. He is very good at what he does and as a student of human behaviour he enjoys his interactions with most of his customers.

According to statistics available, the average cashier in Canada earns $14.01 an hour. The entry level yearly wage for a cashier working full-time is $21,450. The men and women who work with my son have seen their hours increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while others self-isolate at home, cashiers have to go into work. He has described nightmarish scenarios being played out on a daily basis in his store since the arrival of COVID-19 that include threats, verbal abuse and endless customers angry about shortages and stores imposing limits on the amount of product they can purchase.

Cameron was apparently threatened with personal violence over the absence of lemons in the store one evening. TVO interviewed a veteran supermarket employee in Toronto and asked him about the impact COVID-19 had on his work experience.

He said, “98 per cent of the people I see are polite. They are thankful. The other 2 per cent are a**holes. They don’t believe the pandemic is real and they say bullsh*t to social distancing.”

My son tells me that fewer and fewer employees are showing up for each new shift, and the store has had little luck hiring new staff, even after temporarily raising wages $2 an hour for the duration of the pandemic. Many North Americans are beginning to realize what they might face if supermarkets were to close. There has been a groundswell of public support for improved hours, wages and working conditions for cashiers coast to coast. And yet few tangible results of this new found appreciation of cashiers has materialized for front line workers like my son.

Personal Support Workers

The terrible tragedy at Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon has brought into focus the vital roles that personal support workers play in taking care of the sick and elderly. Long term care facilities are largely staffed by these hard working and caring individuals who reported before the outbreak of COVID-19 that they had too many patients to assist on any one shift, were victims of patient abuse and worked in environments rife with sexism and racism.

The average wage of a PSW in Canada is $19.28 an hour, with new PSWs starting at $29,250 a year. PSWs work every day with some of the most vulnerable and immune-compromised people in this country, and often earn so little that they have to work a second job to make ends meet. Now because of COVID-19 they also face the threat of illness or death simply by going to work.

Long-term care facilities have found it very difficult to replace self isolating and ill PSWs despite an aggressive recruiting campaign. Public support for PSWs has never been higher, with outpourings of support now a fixture of local Facebook and other social media posts. Unfortunately warm thoughts on social media don’t pay the bills and many PSWs are demanding danger pay for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far no major chain of long term care homes has stepped up during this crisis to truly show how much they appreciate their employees with a bump in their wages, and that is sad to see.

Truck drivers

My grandfather was a truck driver and a proud member and organizer for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Some of my most vivid memories of the man were trips to the truck compound where he could move these huge machines around the yard effortlessly. A union wage ensured my grandfather and his family lived a comfortable middle class life in Regina, and when he died of cancer, union life insurance and survivor’s benefits meant that my grandmother never wanted for anything.

In the ensuing years the grip of the Teamsters on trucking and hauling in Canada has been broken by the rise of independent owner-operators who own their vehicles and contract their services out to whatever haulage firm needs their vehicle. In Canada today the average truck driver earns $23.50 an hour, and in their first year takes home $32,663 a year. Because of poor wages, retiring truckers have been almost impossible to replace. When combined with spiralling insurance, diesel (not a great cost right now, courtesy of COVID-19) and truck maintenance costs people simply don’t want to do the job anymore.

During this COVID-19 pandemic the role of long haul truckers, short haul truckers and delivery persons and their importance to the economy has come into sharper focus for the first time in decades. People are demanding that gas stations keep washrooms open for truckers. Coffee shops are allowing truckers to walk up to the drive-thru windows now that storefronts are closed. People are suddenly very appreciative of the men and women who make sure the necessities of life continue to be delivered, and their on-line purchases are dropped at their front doors. Amazon is looking to hire 100,000 new employees during this COVID-19 pandemic including thousands of new drivers. The jobs go largely unfilled because of the poor wages and exposure to COVID-19 that could come with these very public positions.

As a father, I never thought my cashier son would become an essential part of the Ontario economy. Cashiers, PSWs and truck drivers deserve so much more than just social media memes for the risks they are taking while much of the rest of the province self-isolates.

Kind wishes and happy thoughts are a good place to start, but better wages and improved working conditions are what these workers really deserve. If they are truly essential to the Ontario economy it is time they see that on their pay cheques and in their working conditions, now and forever.

Kirk is a retired high school history teacher and coach who has had a lifelong interest in politics at all levels. Since retiring, Kirk has spent the last three years doing freelance writing of all kinds for various platforms. Kirk can often be found sitting in the press gallery at City Hall observing and reporting on the vagaries of local government.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for a great article on this. I fear that the “2%,” as called out in the article, are the biggest threat to a better outcome in this pandemic, especially all front-line workers. What do the polite 98% need to do with people like that?

  2. Despite the fact that Doug Ford is doing a decent job in the current crisis, we must remember he rolled back increases in the minimum wage. When this is over, the Conservatives had better revisit this terrible decision.

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