Here are the accidental frontline workers keeping food on your table

Here are the accidental frontline workers keeping food on your table

Meet the grocery workers thrust into the role of essential services across the country, and hear their stories

Like many Canadians, you might still be cooking your favourite recipes at home this week. You might have some extra cans of chickpeas in the cupboard. You might be stress-baking all the things and running low on all-purpose flour. But you’re fairly confident you can get more—maybe even without having to leave your house.

All of this is thanks to your neighbours in the food and grocery industry.

Perhaps you picture men and women in uniform when you think about emergency services—firefighters’ protective gear, doctors’ scrubs, police officers’ navy blue. Well, add to that the branded T-shirt or apron of a grocery store cashier, the winter jacket of a truck driver, and the jeans your Uber Eats driver is wearing today. Essential services are being provided by those stocking (let’s be honest: re-stocking) shelves at the supermarket, filling and emptying vast warehouses and dropping off groceries at your front door.

These hundreds of thousands of people never signed up to work on the front lines of a pandemic. And while companies are raising wages, implementing sanitation measures and installing plexiglass screens at the check-out line, it’s not a stretch to say workers are risking their health to keep Canadian bellies full—and those of their families. A Real Canadian Superstore employee in Oshawa, Ont. tested positive for COVID-19, according to a March 24 note to customers from Galen Weston, the head of Loblaw Companies Limited, which employs some 190,000 people across 2,500 stores. That case likely won’t be the last.

A handful of your local heroes spoke to Maclean’s about what their day-to-day lives have been like in the time of coronavirus.

(Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

Vsevolod Bystritskiy, 27
Vancouver, B.C.
Senior logistics manager, grocery delivery service

Usually I try not to be on deliveries, because I like to be in the office and make sure everything runs smoothly, if drivers need support or if something happens on the road. But at rough times like right now, everybody goes on the road.

Our volumes, recently, with the COVID-19, grew about 280 per cent. So it’s stress-testing us pretty hard right now. We’re all hands on deck. People are working overtime. People do need groceries, and the company is in a tough position, so lots of drivers stepped forward and offered.

Drivers are out risking their health. You have the situation where the door opens and the customer is wearing a mask. That’s something new right now. I’m worried, a little bit, but with safe techniques, like using gloves, social distancing, hopefully we can avoid the virus. It’s obviously a concern. Especially as the volumes grow, it’s pressure on everybody.As most businesses are shutting down, the most essential services, I think, are medical workers and groceries. Because people need to be healthy, and people need to eat.

We’re kind of used to chaos in this business, to be honest—not this chaos. But this boom right now is beneficial for the growth of the online grocery business, and for the safety of people. —as told to Marie-Danielle Smith

Mike Sanders
Baden, Ont.
Refrigerator truck driver, Erb Transport

I was on the road for 15 days. I came home for just over 24 hours and I had to go back out and do a short emergency run, a load of frozen meals down to Nestle in Ohio. And then I picked up in Pennsylvania, for Papa John’s in Kitchener, Ontario, and Whitby. I was the only one allowed on their loading dock. They kept six feet distance from me while I was on there, made me step away every time they came around. Once we were loaded, the only concern was that everything was super cold—if there was any form of bacteria or virus, that it’s frozen out.

When I was in Arkansas before that, they wouldn’t open up the [warehouse] window. I had to talk to them through the glass.Everyone talks about self-isolation. Right now, I feel more self-isolated when I’m out on the road. In truck stops, our drivers’ lounges and restaurant seating that’s inside—none of that is open. They don’t kick you out, but it’s posted everywhere. So when you go in, you use the washroom, you buy whatever and you’re back out in your truck. I’ll say hi to others, but that’s about it. There literally is no one congregating right now. They stay away from each other.

Right now, being told you’re essential service, it puts pressure on everyone that we’re doing everything properly. We have protocol for everything like food safety, and we always have. What we’re hauling, we still hold the same amount, but it’s in higher demand. Everyone wants us there as quick as possible. And you’ve got to stay safe on the roads. —as told to Jason Markusoff

(Photograph by Christie Vuong)

Henry So, 25, and Joseph So, 25
Toronto, Ont.
Owners and cashiers at Riverside Market

Henry: My brother, Joseph, and I used to have at least one day off a week, now we have no days off. I’d say we’re getting about double the amount of customers per day. We aren’t limiting the amount of people in the store, but we’ve changed our hours. Usually we’re open from 7 a.m. to midnight; now we’re open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. It’s still hard to keep a distance in the market though. I’ll be stocking apples or other produce, and people come up behind me with questions. We just put down tape to keep people separate when they’re waiting to pay, because some people don’t understand social distancing. 

We’re a family business, and I am worried about the risk for my family—especially my mom, who works at our west-end Toronto location. To be honest, I wasn’t washing my hands 10 times a day before, but now I am. I wear gloves and we have sanitizer by the cash. My mom wears a mask. I don’t, though. I thought about it, but I heard that you should only wear it if you’re sick, so I don’t think a mask would help me right now. We knew owning a store could be dangerous. Before the pandemic, we had a few customers that tried stealing from us. That was the main threat. Now our biggest concern is this virus. 

Joseph: It’s getting more wild in here; less sleep, more stress. We have to maintain the quality of product that we have in the store to satisfy our customers. At the same time, we have customers who are coughing almost every day and we have to stay a safe distance from them—it’s scary. My mom is nervous for me and my brother. We lie to her, which is not good, but it’s the only way to keep her from calling every five minutes.

Like Henry, I decided not to wear a mask. I find that if I wear one, customers aren’t able to hear me, or people might be scared that I have the virus.  My brother and I live with my mom and we talk about the pandemic almost every night. I can’t think about it too much, though, because I have to be at work. —as told to Ishani Nath

(Photograph by Christie Vuong)

Heather Wear, 24
Etobicoke, Ont. 
Cash manager, No Frills 

I distinctly remember Thursday, March 12, the day after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic. I had the closing shift and when I got in, I was told things had been nuts all day. It was the busiest I’ve ever seen our store, like Christmas and New Year’s times 10. People were waiting up to an 1.5 hours to pay for their groceries and we were totally cleaned out of items like bread, milk and canned goods.

I’ve been at this No Frills for two years and we implemented increased cleaning practices a few weeks back. Cashiers used to clean their station every hour, and between customers when it’s not busy. Now we aim to clean the stations every 20 to 30 minutes. When I’m not on cash, I also sanitize things like freezer door handles and anything else customers touch. Social distancing is still a struggle though, because cashiers and customers stand less than a metre apart.

Since that Thursday, things have calmed down a lot. We still get quite a few customers, but the store seems eerily empty. With everything that’s happening, I am the slightest bit nervous. I avoid touching my face and I wash my hands and sanitize as often as I can, especially after I touch cash. I know that I need to operate differently than before, but I’m trying not to let that scare me. I’m just going to do what I can to get through this and keep doing my job. —as told to Ishani Nath

(Photograph by Jennifer Roberts)

Vanessa Vedia, 38
Toronto, Ont. 
Food delivery, UberEats

I only started driving for UberEats about two months ago, and it’s saving my butt right now. I run a photography and videography business, but with COVID-19, almost all of my projects have been cancelled. My current freelance work only pays my rent, so I rely on deliveries to cover groceries and feeding my dogs.

When I first started driving for UberEats, I’d usually work the lunch hour from around 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. In two hours, I’d get about six calls and be delivering non-stop, making around $50, but things have really slowed down. The other day, I drove around for four hours and made that same amount—and despite everything, customers still rarely tip.

People seem afraid to order food. Even the restaurant employees I pick up from are concerned for my safety because, while they’re isolated in the kitchens,I’m the one interacting with the public.

When I pick up deliveries, I have restaurant employees place the order directly into my thermal carrier and then have the customer take it out of the bag, so I never touch it. I figure that’s safer for the customers, and for me. I’m also getting one or two no-contact deliveries per day. I use gloves and hand sanitizer while I’m working. I keep thinking that as long as I don’t touch anything, I’ll be okay.

Driving for UberEats was only meant to be temporary, until my freelance work picked up again. If there was something else I could do for that extra income, where I wouldn’t have to be on the frontline, I would stop. —as told to Ishani Nath

Troy Andrews
Victoria, B.C.
Logistics manager, Lekker Foods Distribution Ltd.

“We’re definitely busier. Some of the items we sell, it could be 10 times as much as what we would typically do. We sell frozen bakery items, so, bread and what not. Canned goods, of course, so, canned tomatoes, beans—stuff like that. We’re probably overall up about 25 per cent, as far as our volume leaving the warehouse. A big part of our business is retail. We sell everything from local grocery stores to regional chains and some larger chains throughout Western Canada.

I’ve been doing this for 13 years now. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s changing so fast. We have delivery vehicles on the road where we’re basically having to change their plans throughout the day, simply because we’ll get word that customers are closing due to the virus. For our smaller restaurants and local customers, some of it’s actually declined. A lot of these places are closing daily.

There’s going to be a demand for what we do, so everyone seems to be buying in. We’re the end of that supply chain, so as long as we keep doing what we’re doing, our customers are going to keep getting their products. At this point we haven’t seen any shortage.

We have people here whose spouses or partners have been laid off because they’re working retail and in other sectors. Everyone knows that what we’re doing is important. There’s a reason why we’re going to keep going. We’re willing to do whatever it takes.” —as told to Marie-Danielle Smith

(Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Ralph Stabile, 63
Edmonton, Alta.

Merchandise Buyer, Italian Centre 

Everybody is panicked. The last two weeks have been crazy. People have been buying left and right all kinds of stuff, pasta, oil, they clean us out. It’s calming down a little bit, but there’s still some shortages. We bring fresh cheese from Italy, but the cuts in flights means we don’t know if we’re going to get them.

We try to keep the customers happy. Stock-wise, we’re still okay. We follow the rules with how to serve customers, we’re very careful, we have sanitizer all over the place. And if there’s a problem we do what we have to do. Any work where we have to serve the public, yes we could be in danger, but if we have to be here to serve the customers or clients, we try to do our best. I feel good, thank God.

My own family lives near Naples. Their neighbourhood is not that bad yet—the biggest hit is Northern Italy, Rome and up, that’s where the big problem is. For now, [my family] is okay. They’re isolated, they don’t go out. Watching the news, you see a lot of deaths in Italy. It’s bad all over the place. As Italians, but also Canadians, we try to help each other. We pray all together, and hopefully everything is going to get better soon. Not just for Italians but everyone else. We cannot see what’s coming tomorrow. —as told to Nadine Yousif

Brianna Leyman, 30
Edmonton, Alta.
Grocery supervisor, Sobey’s

I help run the dairy frozen department, anything from milk to eggs to cheese, all that kind of stuff. The store has definitely gotten busier for sure, but my role stays the same because we do the best we can everyday for our community. We’re just trying to provide, keep spirits high, keep people from panicking.

We have wipes at the front, we wipe carts and baskets down and ensure everything stays sanitized, and we’re washing our hands. We’re trying to maintain a distance from customers but still make sure that they know we’re here for them. Even a greeting with a smile—people really respect that at this moment. We’re all in this together, so we just want to keep everyone calm.

The customers have been amazing. They’re thanking us constantly when walking by, and we can’t high-five so we’re elbowing them. I’ve worked in three different stores and I’ve never seen a team that’s come together more than [this one] right now. From how I look at it, I’m doing this for someone’s mother, father, grandmother. I would want the same treatment for my family. So, we’re treating people with the utmost respect. And the team is still laughing, they’re still carrying on. You just have to keep the spirits high. We can conquer this. —as told to Nadine Yousif


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