Debates are roiling across Canada as many grocery retailers pull back on so-called hero pay for workers who’ve had to face risky conditions during the pandemic.

Empire Co. Ltd., the parent company of Sobeys, Freshco and some Safeway stores, ended its premium-pay period in June. But that wasn’t the only issue unionized workers at the company’s Alberta Safeway locations considered when they voted to strike in late June. A majority (79 per cent) of members voted in favour of strike action because of benefits concessions the company asked the union to make in its latest collective agreement offer.

“It’s a curious time and the spotlight is at least in part on benefits in a global pandemic,” says Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents the employees. “These workers work in public places and there’s a whole bunch of variables that are driving an augmented interest in benefits.

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“There have been 10 Safeway stores in Alberta that have had COVID diagnoses and investigations. They’re unionized so they have a full-time benefits plan. But the majority of employees are subject to a part-time benefits plan, a jointly trusteed benefit plan that the employer makes contributions to and then there are union and company trustees and we have administrators who administer the plan. And the company is seeking to reduce contributions to those benefits plans. Of course, this is a major bone of contention.”

In the current crisis, he notes, employees are terrified of becoming ill and many have partners with no other benefits coverage, as so many across the province are suddenly out of work. “The company is pursuing reductions in benefits-level contributions, which will put the viability of these plans at risk. It’s a terrible time to do it.”

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With a clear mandate from members, Hesse says the union is eager to get back to the bargaining table.

Empire Co. Ltd. didn’t respond to Benefits Canada‘s request for comment.

Another union, Unifor, kicked off a strike vote on Monday for workers at Loblaws Companies Ltd.’s Dominion stores in Newfoundland and Labrador. In a press release, Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, sharply criticized leadership at Canada’s major grocery retailers for ending special pandemic pay programs.

“It’s not that complicated,” he said. “Workers are supporting these grocery chains through a pandemic that still isn’t over.”