A person's hand rests on a green grocery basket while they wait in line to pay at a check-out in a grocery store.
Photo: Flickr

When Haorui Wu’s students began sharing stories about their stressful experiences working in grocery stores during the pandemic, he was determined to help.

“They told me all kinds of things like how at-risk they are, and also about the awful behaviour they were receiving from some customers,” the Dalhousie University professor said in an interview Tuesday.

“At that point, I realized, OK, there’s something we need to do in order to support them.”

A smiling man dressed in a gray suit with a white shirt and purple tie smiles in front of a background featuring a blue, cloudy sky and greenery.
Dalhousie University professor Haorui Wu. Photo: Contributed

Wu, whose research topics include social justice and disaster mental health, said current research shows customer-facing frontline retail workers are five times more likely to be asymptomatically positive for COVID-19.

They’re also “much more likely” to be admitted to hospital and to suffer more severe illness.

Despite that, there’s only limited research looking at their challenges, how they’re coping, and what needs to be done to support them during this pandemic and future pandemics or disasters.

That’s why Wu, a sociologist and Canada Research Chair in Resilience at Dalhousie University, is launching a national online research survey in the new year.

He and his co-investigator at the University of Calgary hope their findings will help policymakers, public health officials, and the grocery industry better understand the pandemic-related challenges faced by frontline grocery workers and their families so they can provide evidence-based supports.

“There’s really only limited research on the frontline retail grocery workers’ experience compared to other groups,” Wu said.

“We really need to build some research capacity to understand what their vulnerabilities and their challenges are so that we can support them.”

‘Really vulnerable in the workplace’

These essential workers, Wu said, have been front and centre throughout the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, despite the ongoing uncertainties presented by the virus and the risks to themselves and their loved ones.

The sector’s workforce also tends to include more vulnerable populations — ethnic minorities, women, new Canadians, and students.

“Their salaries are very low, their working hours are often really, really long, and they don’t get any benefits like sick pay or anything,” Wu said.

“All of those things come together to make them really vulnerable in the workplace.”

He pointed to the difficulty grocery store workers have maintaining social distancing from their customers, adding that the nature of aerosol dispersal means even plastic barriers aren’t going to offer complete protection.

Wu also reflected on the early days of the pandemic when personal protective equipment (PPE) was being limited due to global supply shortages. Most of it was diverted to the health care sector rather than frontline grocery workers. Similarly, when vaccines were being doled out, Wu said the grocery store sector wasn’t considered a vulnerable group and those workers weren’t prioritized.

“Nurses and people working in the hospital or in the long-term care facilities got priority to get a vaccine,” Wu said.

“However, the grocery workers, they face the same kind of risk and they are initially excluded from the list … We really don’t have any social policy to support them.”

‘Do some small thing to support those workers’

The survey will include participants from Nova Scotia, Québec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Wu encourages people from those seven provinces to contact him if they’re interested in participating. Details will also be available on his website once the survey has launched.

Wu hopes to share preliminary findings by the middle of 2022.

“COVID affects everyone, right? That is true. However, the vulnerable and marginalized populations are harder hit,” Wu said.

“They don’t have enough resources, they don’t have enough support, and their recovery will be much, much slower than other groups. In order to make us a sustainable and just society, we really need to focus on the vulnerable.”

Janet, a Halifax-area grocery store cashier who didn’t want to use her name for fear of being reprimanded, said she’s exhausted after more than a year of working during the pandemic.

She said one ongoing issue is customers yelling and cursing at her because of the province’s mask mandate.

“The worst is when they scream at you for no reason because they’re upset and frustrated,” she said. “Guess what? I’m upset and frustrated too but I’m not treating you like garbage.”

As people finish their last-minute Christmas shopping and grocery pick-ups for their upcoming holiday meals, Wu urges them to think about the frontline grocery store workers and to practice a little bit of patience and kindness.

“I totally understand the COVID fatigue. That’s happening everywhere and it’s affecting everyone. When you go to a grocery store, please think about that,” he said.

“Maybe do some small thing to support those workers. Sometimes it’s just saying hi to them, just a small sentence of appreciation. That can really help them a lot.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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