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COVID-19 and the liquor store

Thursday, May 21, 2020 @ 2:03 PM | By Rachel Goldenberg

Rachel Goldenberg %>
Rachel Goldenberg
There is not a single person or entity in the world right now that has not been affected by COVID-19. Even with the reopening of some retail businesses in a few of the provinces in Canada, there is no doubt that the economy has been hit very hard by this pandemic. Stores and restaurants have shut down — some temporarily, some permanently. But amidst all of this chaos, there appears to be one store that is thriving: Ontario’s liquor outlet, formally known as LCBO.

Understandably so.

When news hit that we would all be self-isolating, alcohol was one of the first things on many people’s minds. We need it to drown our sorrows and alleviate our anxiety. Spirits to lift our spirits. But what about all the employees who are toiling away, exposing themselves to the risk of contracting the virus, making sure that our beverage needs are met?

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has been outspoken in advocating for the employees of LCBO, demanding that LCBO workers receive hazard pay as the Ford government is providing $4 an hour to many front-line workers. OPSEU is calling for that same gratitude and recognition of the hard efforts of the LCBO’s workers.

LCBO has refused to provide hazard pay, citing costs for health and safety measures as a reason not to pay. LCBO also maintains that it is sticking to the collective agreement that was negotiated and agreed to by OPSEU.

OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas has been harshly critical of the LCBO, alleging that its workers are being mistreated and are being put at risk for the LCBO’s personal gain. As many retail stores are closing up shop and reducing hours, LCBO is, in fact, expanding its hours.

In a statement on behalf of OPSEU, Thomas said: “It's absolutely appalling that [LCBO CEO George] Soleas and his cronies refuse to give hazard pay to their front-line workers but have no qualms about expanding the number of hours they’re potentially exposed to COVID-19.”

Additionally, Thomas has accused LCBO of an “elitist management” style, taking substantial bonuses while the workers who take on the actual risk are not receiving anything. In fact, LCBO sales have gone up during the COVID-19 crisis. OPSEU has accused LCBO of putting its bottom line above all else.

OPSEU has also repeatedly called out LCBO’s senior management, accusing them of not being proactive with respect to the health and safety of their employees. It claims that LCBO is slow to communicate with the union and does not promptly inform the union when employees either show symptoms of COVID-19 or test positively for the virus. OPSEU is critical of LCBO for not requiring its employees to wear PPE, instead just encouraging it.

While I agree that LCBO workers should be receiving hazard pay, or at the very least some recognition of all the hard work they have been doing, I do not necessarily agree that LCBO is acting wrongly or putting its employees “at risk,” as Thomas alleges. LCBO has taken numerous measures to protect the health and safety of its employees and customers.

It has put physical distancing supports in place, directions to manage traffic flow, plexiglass barriers at cash desks, enhanced store cleaning and sanitation protocols and has provided face shields for retail staff if they want to wear them while serving customers. LCBO is asking customers to pay with debit/credit to avoid the exchange of cash and to pack with their own reusable bag. It is encouraging people to wear non-medical masks or face coverings while in the store. Like many other retail services, it is also offering priority access for health-care workers who present official photo identification.

OPSEU points to the new extended store hours as another example of putting its workers at risk.

However, when you consider LCBO’s expressed rationale for the extended hours, it actually makes sense and is attempting to reduce the risk, not increase it. In anticipation of the May long weekend and warm weather drinking, LCBO tried to alleviate the potential congestion of store lineups and tried to stagger shoppers’ attendance.

I see the merit in LCBO’s position. It is doing its best. But I also see the merit in OPSEU’s position, that by expanding store hours, LCBO is expanding the risk of exposure to the virus.

The reality is, employees in retail stores such as grocery stores and the LCBO do face a higher risk of exposure than other workers, especially employees who can work from the safety of their own home. I am extremely grateful that I am among the latter category. That is why, while I disagree with OPSEU’s allegation that LCBO is trying to capitalize on the public’s panic by forcing its workers to work longer hours, I do agree that LCBO workers should be receiving some sort of hazard pay. These workers deserve some recognition.

It appears that instead of responding to the demands for a pay increase, LCBO is threatening legal action against the union. On May 7, 2020, the OPSEU website published a press release stating that LCBO served a demand letter upon the union. In the press release, OPSEU demanded that management stop focusing on a legal challenge and start thinking about the front-line workers. OPSEU president Thomas was quoted saying:

“[CEO Dr. George Soleas] is an embarrassment to the CEO high-flyer club. … I’m so sorry you don’t like the fact that we’re doing our job standing up for the health and safety of our members and LCBO customers; we’ll see you in court — Doctor. We look forward to Discoveries and the examination of all internal documents and emails related to labour relations throughout the pandemic. It’s a perfect opportunity to right the ship of the crown jewel of Crown Corporations.”

This is a little dramatic. LCBO is a business like all others, just trying to navigate this new world we find ourselves in. It will make mistakes and learn from them, just like the rest of us.

The most important takeaway of this battle between LCBO and OPSEU is that employers must provide a safe workplace for their employers. Yes, LCBO should be providing some additional pay to its employees. But so long as it is taking all measures reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of its employees, it is not in violation of any current statutory obligations.

And for any employees who disagree and feel that their health or safety is at risk, remember that you always have the option of refusing to work under occupational health and safety legislation, without any fear of reprisal.

Rachel Goldenberg is a content lawyer at LexisNexis Canada.

Photo credit / Yevhenii Dorofieiev ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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