Sobeys Inc. is reinstating a lockdown bonus for employees in areas with renewed stay-at-home orders, said a statement by the grocery retailer, which also noted the pay bump is “the right thing to do.”

“When regions and cities enter government-mandated lockdowns that close all non-essential retail, we continue to live up to our commitments and implement our lockdown bonus,” said the statement.

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The bonus is a temporary program that rewards employees for the amount of time they work during the lockdown period, explained the statement, noting the more an employee works during the government-mandated lockdown the more they earn, ranging from $10 to $100 more a week. For example, an employee that works a 40-hour work week would earn a $100 bonus that week.

The changes will affect employees in locations under stay-at-home orders, which doesn’t include all of the stores owned by Sobeys parent company Empire Company Ltd. The company said the bonus is being paid to frontline workers at Sobeys, Foodland, FreshCo, Farm Boy, Voilà by Sobeys and retail support centre employees, as well as certain IGA locations in locked-down regions of Quebec.

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As a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic prompts renewed lockdowns in parts of Canada, it’s unclear whether all frontline grocery employees will see a bump in pay. Metro Inc. and Walmart Canada declined to comment on whether they planned to offer a similar bonus to employees in lockdown areas. Loblaw Companies Ltd. didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Ontario supermarket chain Longo’s, which sold a majority stake of its business to the Empire Company last month, said on Twitter last week it would be providing permanent frontline employees with an added $2-per-hour for four weeks, the length of the provincial stay-at-home order.

Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd. also offered a $2-per-hour pandemic premium to all frontline hourly employees until March 1, when it replaced the temporary bonus with a permanent $1-an-hour salary increase, said Martin Groleau, vice-president of membership and marketing. The change increased the starting salary to $16 an hour, up from $15, with the average hourly Costco employee earning $23.71 an hour, he said.

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During the first wave of the pandemic last spring, many frontline grocery workers received so-called hero pay. The pay premiums were intended to recognize the risks essential workers faced working with the public and the additional workload at busy supermarkets as people stockpiled groceries. It also served to incentivize employees to go into work, said Raji Jayaraman, associate professor in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

“There’s the efficiency rationale to offer hazard pay as a strategic incentive to get them to show up, to get them to work, to be efficient and to keep morale up,” she said. “The second rationale is just about fairness. Grocery stores have done incredibly well during the pandemic . . . and some workers are barely making ends meet.”

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Retail employees weren’t the only ones to see coronavirus pandemic bonuses during the ongoing public-health crisis, as many other companies, such as Siemens Canada, also instituted one-time bonuses to their employees. But as the number of coronavirus infections dropped and stay-at-home orders were lifted, most companies phased out hazard pay last June. Yet employees of grocery stores across the nation continued going in to work, assuaging fears employees might turn to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, rather than report to work, Jayaraman said.

Anil Verma, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said the pandemic has revealed how essential grocery retail is. “Food is fundamental,” he said. “We have to ask as a society how we are going to ensure that essential services are in place in the case of another crisis, and workers are key. Retailers operate on small margins but maybe we need an industry-wide minimum wage to create stability through higher wages.”

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