On the Friday in mid-March after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Dylan, a cashier at a Toronto LCBO, served the type of crowds he’s only seen on New Year’s Eve. He wasn't given any personal protective equipment, nor were there any social distancing directives in the store, though there are now.
Unlike millions of Canadians, Dylan, who is in his mid-30s, still has his job, working for little more than minimum wage at Ontario's chain of liquor stores and seeing hundreds of customers a week. But instead of being relieved, every shift causes him anxiety.
“It’s been emotionally and mentally exhausting,” said Dylan, who doesn't want his real name used because he's concerned it could affect his employment. “There’s just this enduring fear and anxiety with every interaction you have with a customer.”
While many businesses across Canada and the U.S. have shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus and increase physical distancing, most jurisdictions have declared liquor stores essential services that must remain open. Some stores have had sharp increases in sales, so workers are dealing with more customers than usual. VICE spoke to liquor store employees who said frontline workers aren’t being given enough protection or compensation to deal with the risks of serving the public and that some customers are violating physical distancing rules in stores, putting themselves and employees in harm’s way.
In Stratford, Ontario, police are investigating an assault after they alleged a man deliberately coughed in the face of an LCBO worker because he was annoyed about the COVID-19-related safety measures in the store. Police said the man told others in line “it was not worth the wait just to cough on the cashier.”
Dylan has been working as a casual employee at the LCBO since last year, meaning he’s perpetually on call and doesn’t have the same benefits as full-time staff, including paid sick leave. He currently works around 30 hours a week and is paid $15.84 an hour—about $6 less than a living wage in Toronto, according to the Ontario Living Wage Network.
Although he said the LCBO has been slowly ramping up its response to the pandemic, overall he feels it’s been lax. He wants the company to shut down its smaller locations in Toronto and only allow customers to place orders at the door.
In 2019, the LCBO’s president and CEO George Soleas earned a salary of $567,000 with $19,000 in benefits.
“I couldn't be more disillusioned with a company that I think earned $6 billion in 2018 in terms of what they've done to protect their frontline staff,” he said.
In 2019, the LCBO’s president and CEO George Soleas earned a salary of $567,000 with $19,000 in benefits. But Dylan and other retail workers are not receiving any hazard pay. If he chooses not to work, he won’t be eligible for federal relief funding because he technically still has a job.
The LCBO told VICE it is giving casual employees up to 32 hours of “compassionate leave,” the same allowance for full-time staff, to navigate any challenges as a result of COVID-19.
The corporation has limited the number of customers in stores, provided gloves to workers, and set up hand sanitizing stations. This week Dylan said his store resurrected plexiglas spit barriers—though not enough for every cashier—and started allowing employees to wear masks, which they must source themselves. The LCBO said it is also rolling out face shields.
Dylan said his size of gloves ran out in the middle of a recent shift and that his store hasn’t been provided with face shields.
"Ultimately, I’m a cashier. I’m not a nurse, I’m not a harm reduction worker. I’m a cashier.”
Meanwhile, he’s had customers complain when he’s advised them to use hand sanitizer and make space. Others crack jokes about how they’re grateful the LCBO is still open or treat their visit like a social outing.
“It’s extremely frustrating because I can only do so much and also I’m making a little bit more than minimum wage. Ultimately, I’m a cashier. I’m not a nurse, I’m not a harm reduction worker. I’m a cashier.”
Beer Stores continue to take back empties
Twenty minutes into her shift Monday, Pauline, a Beer Store employee, had to tell one of her customers to back away from another.
Pauline, who does not want to be identified because of concerns it could jeopardize her job, has worked for an Ontario Beer Store for more than a decade. She makes $20 an hour, working part-time, but said some of her colleagues are making little more than minimum wage. She has no paid sick days, though her pay was recently increased by $1.25 an hour.
Pauline is currently the only earner in her household; her partner was laid off due to COVID-19 and they have three kids, including one with special needs. While she feels pressure to earn an income, she’s worried about risking her health and not being able to care for her children.
Pauline said the Beer Store store is providing workers with gloves, but not masks. They are meant to get spit barriers, but those haven’t been implemented in her store yet. Up until March 19, stores were still taking back empties from customers, and dozens of locations have started accepting them again. And for several days at the end of March, her store and others were only accepting cash due to a cyber attack, at a time when cash sales are being discouraged.
“It’s terrifying,” she said, noting she won’t go back to work if her store starts accepting empties again. “For me to be fiddling around with bottles and splash back for things that have been in people’s mouths I don’t think during a pandemic is the best idea.”
In response to a detailed list of questions, The Beer Store’s president Ted Moroz said all employees are supplied with gloves, face shields, and safety goggles, and that plexiglas barriers are meant to be in all stores by week’s end. Moroz also said security guards have been hired to manage the public.
When VICE visited a store in Toronto Thursday, there was no guard outside, and the cashier had gloves but didn’t have a face shield, goggles, or a mask. Pauline said she’s only been provided with gloves.
When pressed about the allegation that not all employees have received masks or barriers, Bill Walker, a spokesman for the Beer Store, accused VICE of engaging in “gotcha journalism.”
Then he tweeted that VICE is at fault for not telling him which store Pauline works at, information that risks identifying her.
“This is reprehensible behaviour during a pandemic. I still don’t have the alleged information and so if there is a protection gap, that is on @VICE. Normal times have your fun. But not during a pandemic,” Walker tweeted, as part of a lengthy tirade for which he later apologized.
Many workers don’t get paid sick leave
Pauline said every shift she sees at least one group of friends not social distancing, and that people browse, touch things with their bare hands and leave, before someone else comes along and buys those same products.
While she lauded the store for reducing its hours, Pauline said there is more it can do, including eliminating fridges full of singles, adding pick-up only service, and closing some locations. She also said workers should be getting paid more.
“We are doing really well financially,” she said. “They need to be putting their employees before the money.”
Deena Ladd, executive director of the Toronto-based Workers' Action Centre, a group that advocates for precarious employees, said in the case of the LCBO, the company and the union should be working together to make sure employees are given adequate protection. However, she said that because the LCBO employs many casual employees, they aren’t entitled to the same status, even if unionized.
“You’ve got people who are the most causal, most precarious workers and most in line with minimum wage now being asked to step up and do these jobs that nobody else wants to do,” she said.
Ladd said the LCBO and other companies who are generating revenue right now should be investing that back into the safety of the workers.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents LCBO employees, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
John Nock, president of UFCW Local 12R24, which represents Beer Store workers, said “health and safety reps and local stewards are monitoring safety protocols at all locations and working diligently with management to improve them where necessary.”
Ladd said it’s “not right” that workers are deemed essential, but in some cases have no paid sick days. Under Premier Doug Ford, Ontario rolled back sick days benefits.
Employees who get sick on the job due to COVID-19 are eligible for funding through the Canadian government. No doctor’s note is required and casual and part-time workers qualify.
American employees lack health insurance
That type of relief is not an option for Chris Ohanlon, 28, a liquor store manager in Clifton, New Jersey.
Ohanlon didn’t want his independent store to be named because he thinks it is doing the best it can under the circumstances. But he wants the state to regulate liquor stores the same way as restaurants—pick-up only.
"Our lives are going to be on the line."
Ohanlon has no health insurance and he is worried that his job is putting his health at risk—but he is equally concerned about not having an income.
“It feels like a gut punch when you find out you’re an essential employee,” he said. “We have people coming in, laughing about it, ‘hey you’re going to be open, that’s great.’ But our lives are going to be on the line.”
He sees up to 1,000 customers on a weekend. Recently, he said a regular came in wearing a mask and gloves and asked for a full case of vodka.
“He goes, ‘I’m just stocking up, my girlfriend has symptoms. I’m pretty sure I have it’” he said.
More concerning, is that Ohanlon said one of his colleagues is believed to have contracted COVID-19. Last week, his partner gave birth to his son in a hospital with many coronavirus cases, and he said she had complications. He’s now checking to see if he can qualify for parental leave so that he can take care of her and the baby.
“This should be the happiest time in my life. This should be the happiest time in my girlfriend’s life,” he said. “In this situation it feels like something’s been stolen from us.”