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

Prince Rupert Tourism is benefitting from funding for new welcome and wayfinding signage from the COVID-19 Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program. McClymont Park on the gateway into Prince Rupert is one of the first things tourists see entering the city by road. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
$695,000 Community Economic Recovery funds to benefit local organizations

Prince Rupert Tourism and Gitga’at Development Corporation to receive COVID-19 recovery funds

Wainwright Marine Services Ltd.’s “Ingenika” tugboat went missing in the Garner Canal area south and east of Kitimat on Feb. 11, resulting in two deaths and the rescue of a third man. (Wainwright Marine Photo)
Tug union demands Transport Canada protect workers along B.C. coast and rivers

ILWU makes safety demands following the deaths of two men and the rescue of a third

High winds blow wet snow in Prince Rupert on Feb. 24. The region is expecting two to four cm of snow and winds up to 100 km per hour. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
High wind warnings for North Coast, up to 4 cm of snow expected

Wet snow makes driving conditions in Prince Rupert slippery

Pink shirt day was celebrated at Pineridge Elementary School by staff and students in a stand against bullying. Mr. Craig, a work-experience student from Charle Hays Secondary School is seen with students in front of the hearts for kindness board on Feb. 24. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Pineridge students stand against bullying

Prince Rupert students in the pink with kindness

A Prince Rupert neighbourhood on Feb. 23, showing various housing with an apartment building development in the background. Housing advocates in the city say affordable housing is scarce.(Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Prince Rupert Recruitment campaign creates housing availability debate

“There is a serious disconnect here, with the new recruitment campaign,” - Paul Lagace

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Carolyn Howe, a kindergarten teacher and vice president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, says educators are feeling the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the influx of pressure that comes with it. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Stress leave, tears and insomnia: Island teachers feel the strain of COVID-19

Teachers still adjusting to mask and cleaning rules, pressures from outside and within

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen, all 20, drown in the Sooke River in February 2020. (Contributed photos)
Coroner confirms ‘puddle jumping’ in 2020 drowning deaths of 3 B.C. men

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen pulled into raging river driving through nearby flooding

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Vancouver International Women in Film Festival kicks off March 5.
Women in Film Festival features two B.C. filmmakers

The 16th annual festival kicks off March 5, 2021

Most Read