Union representing frontline workers wants Provincial Health Officer to order Save-on-Foods to protect workers and customers
One of British Columbia’s biggest supermarket chains is refusing calls to require customers to wear face masks in their stores to curb the spread of COVID-19, forcing a union representing grocery workers to ask BC’s Provincial Health Officer to intervene and order the company to mandate masks.
Save-On-Foods, a chain owned by billionaire Jim Pattison, doesn’t require pandemic shoppers to wear masks at its BC locations, even though a number of their main competitors already do so, including Walmart, Whole Foods as well as Loblaws’ Real Canadian Superstore, No Frills and T&T Supermarket chains.
The company outlined why it does not require face masks in an August 14 letter to UFCW Local 1518.
According to Save-On-Foods, the company believes it does not need to proactively require masks because no law requires them to do so:
“We take our direction from the health authorities and our respective governments and as you can imagine, forcing masks where the legislation has not yet been established places a significant burden on our team members to enforce rules with customers. This is not their responsibility, and as you well know, today’s workplace, amid the pandemic, is challenging for our teams, without having the weight of mandating non-legislated protocols on their shoulders.”
Save-On-Foods described its current policy by stating that unless they are mandated by law, workers are only “required to wear masks if they are unable to social distance.”
Save-On-Foods was responding to an August 12 letter from UFCW 1518 President Kim Novak urging the company to “implement a policy to make mask wearing mandatory for customers and all people entering your stores”:
“Making mask-wearing mandatory for shoppers in your stores is a responsible decision that helps protect everyone. This is why our union has also entered in discussions with government about the importance of making mask wearing in public spaces a government directive.”
Following Save-On-Foods’ refusal to change its in-store face mask policy, the union wrote to BC’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, requesting a public order requiring masks be worn in all BC grocery stores.
A statement from the union reads:
“COVID-19 cases peaked at over 800 cases over the weekend, making it clear that British Columbia is in the second wave of the pandemic. UFCW 1518 is seeking mandatory mask-wearing in grocery stores to slow the transmission of the virus and protect front line workers.”
Although Dr. Henry has not issued a public order, on Monday BC’s Provincial Health Officer used stronger language on face masks, stating that it is her “expectation” that British Columbians “wear a non-medical mask in public spaces.”
Dr. Henry specifically pointed to a “grocery store” as an example of a situation where “we need to wear a mask.”
Novak, the president of UFCW 1518, told PressProgress that retailers should alleviate any “burden” on workers to enforce mask-wearing rules by beefing up security measures.
“Frontline workers have received more abuse through this pandemic with frustration from people coming in from the public,” Novak explained. “But I urge these companies to ensure they have the proper security measures in place to protect workers.”
“Mask wearing being mandatory is then reinforced,” she added.
Novak said her members are increasingly worried that customers entering stores without masks are putting workers at risk: “The issue is that while there has been some crowd control with respect to line ups, when you’re actually in a grocery store it is challenging to keep more than six feet of distance.”
“We’ve seen a lot of other retailers take the initiative to make mask wearing mandatory,” she added. “We are urging companies to help protect workers, especially when they’re implementing policies for their own employees to be wearing masks.”
The BC director of the Retail Council of Canada recently joined calls from doctors’ groups calling for a mandatory mask order in BC.
Save-On-Foods did not respond to a request for comment from PressProgress about its mask policy.
Save-On-Foods’ owner Jim Pattison recently boasted that his company has “never been in better shape” financially just three months after Save-On-Foods axed its workers’ $2-per-hour pandemic hazard pay.
Read Save-On-Foods’ letter refusing to mandate face masks in its storesPDF-2020-10-06
Read UFCW’s letter to Save-On-Foods asking them to implement an in-store face mask policyPDF-2020-10-06
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referenced Save-On-Foods President Darrell Jones as the president of UFCW 1518 in one paragraph.