Ty Harasemow is the head shop steward at Nelson’s Save-On-Foods location for UFCW 1518. Photo: Tyler Harper

Ty Harasemow is the head shop steward at Nelson’s Save-On-Foods location for UFCW 1518. Photo: Tyler Harper

‘We are working the front lines’: Behind the till with a B.C. grocery store employee

A union rep at Save-On-Foods talks about life in the aisles during a pandemic

Ty Harasemow has worked in grocery stores for over a decade, and until now his biggest concern during a shift might have been stocking shelves.

Now, when he steps into Nelson’s Save-On-Foods location, Harasemow is surrounded by reminders he is suddenly an essential service worker in the middle of a global pandemic.

“We are working the front lines. None of us really know if we’re going to get sick…,” said Harasemow.

“To be perfectly honest, we’re taking our precautions. We are so diligent in this store I don’t believe any of our hands can take sanitizer much longer.”

Grocery stores are among the few places people are allowed, out of necessity, to gather. But for employees, many of whom are working for minimum wage, the realities of COVID-19 were not something they signed up for.

Harasemow, a head shop steward representing UFCW 1518 and the approximately 150 employees at the Nelson store, said many of his coworkers deal with some level of panic daily. Others, he added, are more relaxed.

“I don’t want to take away from the fact that yes, there is added stress being so congregated in our store, trying to abide by these rules that we’re socially applying to our customers, and actually fulfill them ourselves while still conducting a business. That’s proven problematic and stressful.”

UFCW 1518 represents workers at stores including Save-On, Safeway and IGA. In Nelson, the changes made at Save-On and Safeway are quickly apparent to customers. Carts are wiped down and hands sanitized at the door. Tape on the floors show how close to stand to others, and which direction to walk in. Plexiglass separates the till from the buyer.

Harasemow says his co-workers and union are generally content with the safety measures introduced by the company, and that he’s impressed by how quickly changes were made in March when lockdowns in B.C. began.

He added Save-On and the union also agreed to a raise of $2 per hour, retroactive to the beginning of March, as so-called hero’s pay during the pandemic.

“That just re-affirmed no types of political issues are going to [keep] us from working together as one right now, and that’s very good to see,” he said.

Dan Goodman, the secretary treasurer of UFCW 247 based in Surrey, mostly agrees with Harasemow’s characterization of union-company relations.

Goodman’s union represents 14,000 grocery store workers across B.C. at stores including No Frills, Extra Foods, Safeway and, in Nelson, the Wholesale Club. While he gives those companies credit for what they’ve done, Goodman also thinks the pandemic will change union expectations once bargaining resumes.

“I certainly think our members are going to be a lot stronger or less inhibited in telling the company how they feel about what their entitlement should be,” he said. “So I think it’s going to make things challenging at the bargaining table, for sure.”

The real issue the members of his union face, Goodman said, is with customers who aren’t respecting the rules or are perhaps becoming too comfortable in stores.

“I think they view the grocery store as a return to normalcy,” said Goodman. “I think people can’t go to a restaurant, you can’t do all these things you normally do in your every day life. You can’t send your kids to the park because it’s covered in yellow tape.

“So I think when they get into the stores, sometimes people forget, which I think is one of the reasons why they are going to the store too much. It’s an excuse to get out and forget about everything going on. They forget about that distance, they forget about having to wait or walk around somebody.”

What that’s meant, Goodman says, is a re-evaluation of a capitalist motto: the customer is always right. Younger staff have had an easier time asserting themselves, he said, while some more experienced staff have been reticent to express their needs with customers.

“We’re telling our members that when someone is in your space, you need to turn to them and say you need to give me my two metres,” he said.

“You have the right to do that, because ultimately you have the right to a safe workplace. So I think that’s been a bit of a challenge. That’s a whole new role, a whole new aspect that probably wasn’t there before.”

And it may not be one experienced in every store.

Harasemow said he’s been touched by how often customers have showed his colleagues patience and gratitude for doing a difficult job in trying times.

“So that’s the biggest thing I have to show appreciation for…,” he said. “We’re all on the same team here, we all want to be on the same page.”

Related:

Nelson grocers: ‘We’re not going to run out of food’

Nelson’s downtown markets to go ahead, but with changes



tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

SkyTrain’s end of the line, for now, in Whalley. (File photo)
Provincial budget watchers lament no mention of Surrey SkyTrain expansion

But $1.66 billion is earmarked for a second hospital for Surrey, in Cloverdale

The Da Vinci Experience is scheduled to open at Tsawwassen Mills (5000 Canoe Pass Way) in June, with early bird tickets for shows July 15 to Aug. 15 on sale now. (Submitted photo)
‘Immersive art experience’ in Tsawwassen to showcase work of Leonardo Da Vinci

The Da Vinci Experience to open at Tsawwassen Mills in June, early-bird tickets on sale now

Artist Jim Adams pictured in 2017 in the “cockpit” of his home studio in White Rock. (File photo: Tom Zillich)
‘Vancouver Special’ show a home for art by one Surrey Civic Treasure starting May 22

White Rock’s Jim Adams welcomes the ‘major exposure’ at Vancouver Art Gallery

Mak Parhar speaks at an anti-mask rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Parhar was arrested on Nov. 2 and charged with allegedly violating the Quarantine Act after returning from a Flat Earth conference held in Geenville, South Carolina on Oct. 24. (Flat Earth Focker/YouTube.com screenshot)
Judge tosses lawsuit of B.C. COVID-denier who broke quarantine after Flat Earth conference

Mak Parhar accused gov, police of trespass, malfeasance, extortion, terrorism, kidnapping and fraud

A lone traveler enters the Calgary Airport in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
VIDEO: Trudeau defends Canada’s travel restrictions as effective but open to doing more

Trudeau said quarantine hotels for international air travellers will continue until at least May 21

Canadian driver Paul Tracy pulls out of the pits during the morning session at the Molson Indy in Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, July 26, 2003 (CP/Richard Lam)
Vancouver is considering hosting a Formula E race using electric cars

The race would be part of a three-day event focused on climate and sustainability

Chart from the April 20 B.C. budget shows sharp dip in real estate sales early in the COVID-19 pandemic and the even steeper climb since late 2020. (B.C. government)
Hot B.C. housing market drives property transfer tax gains

B.C. budget boosts tobacco, sweet drinks, carbon taxes

President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. to help Canada with more COVID-19 vaccine supply, Biden says

The U.S. has already provided Canada with about 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine

B.C.’s 2021 budget is trending in the right direction to support farmers, says the BC Fruit Growers’ Association. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
BC Fruit Growers’ Association gives thumbs up to provincial budget

BCFGA general manager said budgetary investments put farming industry on a good trajectory for recovery

Man gunned down Wednesday morning outside of Langley Sportsplex at 91a Ave and 200 Street. (Shane MacKicha/Special to The Star)
VIDEO: IHIT investigating fatal shooting near Langley Sportsplex

91A Avenue at 200th Street is closed to the public as investigation continues

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson leaves the assembly with Premier John Horgan after the budget speech Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Paid sick leave for ‘hard-hit’ workers left out of provincial budget: BCGEU

‘For recovery to be equitable it requires supports for workers, not just business,’ says union president Laird Cronk

A large crowd protested against COVID-19 measures at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Snapchat)
VIDEO: Large, police-patrolled crowds gather at Vancouver beach for COVID protests

Vancouver police said they patrolled the area and monitored all gatherings

Most Read