CHELSEA, Que. — Grocery store employees who continued to work during the COVID-19 pandemic are "heroes" and should be properly compensated, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday.
Trudeau's remarks came about a week after Canada's three major grocers scrapped so-called pandemic wage premiums for their staff.
"The people who step up in the midst of the most serious times to ensure that Canadians can still put food on the table, that they can get deliveries they need, that shelves are stocked, that Canadian continue to be safe and fed are heroes of this pandemic every bit as much as our front-line health workers and emergency responders," he said at a news conference in Chelsea, Que., after being asked for his reaction to the pay clawback.
Loblaw Companies Ltd., Metro Inc. and Empire Co. announced last week they would stop paying an hourly premium to store workers starting June 13.
Loblaw and Metro both had been paying workers an extra $2 an hour since March 8, while Empire offered a weekly bonus to all employees and a $2 hourly wage bump to those working more than 20 hours a week.
The companies provided various explanations for the decision, which was slammed by two unions that represent the workers.
Loblaw stores settled into a more stable situation, a spokesperson said at the time, adding the company has invested more than $280 million into safety measures and "is no longer benefiting financially from COVID-19."
Metro and Empire noted a similar stability.
Trudeau said that the people who have stepped up to help Canadians, often while risking their health or safety, should continue to be supported and respected.
"That's why we will continue to exhort and expect that people who've stepped up during this time be properly supported and paid for it," he said.
Trudeau's comments come on the heels of the House of Commons Industry Committee voting unanimously on Thursday to summon representatives of Loblaw, Metro and Empire to explain how they came to the decision, within 24 hours of each other, to cut wage premiums for front-line staff.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was also asked about the decision at an Ottawa news conference Friday and whether it would impact if the companies receive future funding or access to programs.
"I hope that one of the things that this pandemic has taught us is that people who do some of the work which is most essential for our actual, our literal survival are among the lowest paid people in our country," she said.
"I'm sure that was frightening for many of them," she said, adding she has told workers at her local grocery stores just how grateful she is for their service.
"I do think that it behoves all of us, including employers, not to forget that lesson."
Freeland added that the House has heard concerns that government support to Canadians may have provided a disincentive to work.
"I think the fact that grocery stores now feel able to bring the wages back down suggests that there isn't a powerful disincentive to work out there," she said.
A Metro spokesperson declined to comment, while Loblaw and Empire did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trudeau and Freeland's statements.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020.
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