How these GTA grocery employees got steadier work schedules

By Chantal Braganza - Published on October 8, 2015
couple checking out groceries
Two grocery chains are leading a shift away from on-call scheduling. Fourth in a week-long series on food and labour.

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When Samantha Henry needs a last-minute babysitter, her mom understands. The two both work at a Metro grocery store in Scarborough, and, as a part-time employee, Samantha can’t afford to turn down shifts, no matter how short the notice.

“You have to have a certain availability to get hours, and many people hope to get extra. You can’t live on 14 hours a week,” says Deb Henry, Samantha’s mother. Deb knows first-hand what the job is like – she’s worked at Metro for 12 years, the first seven as part-time.

Samantha and other employees of Metro locations in the Greater Toronto Area received their Sunday-to-Saturday schedules on a Thursday. Part-timers with fewer than five years of experience, like Samantha, had no guarantee of a minimum number of hours.

“So if she can get a few hours, we’re taking the kids,” says Deb. In fact, the family has plans to move in together, along with Deb’s mother, to make it easier to pick up extra shifts and co-ordinate child care. 

In retail, practices such as short-term scheduling, non-guaranteed hours or in some cases on-call shifts – where an employee’s shift can be cancelled on short notice – are part of a larger trend of precarious employment that affects large swaths of the province. According to the Worker’s Action Centre, about one in three jobs in Ontario today is part-time, temporary, contract or self-employed. Up to 44 per cent of adult jobs in the Toronto and Hamilton areas are affected by some degree of uncertainty, a 2013 joint study by the United Way and McMaster University found.

The dance for availability and last-minute shifts was trickier for Samantha until this summer, when the union that represents her negotiated protections for part-time employees around minimum hours and notifications for shiftwork. Advocates say such protections should be enshrined in Ontario law.

In the case of part-time employment, under the current law employers are free to treat workers however they would like.

“They have complete power,” says Wayne Lewchuk, a labour studies scholar and co-author of the United Way-McMaster report. “I don’t think there’s a Canadian jurisdiction anywhere where that’s not the case.” Labour law in Ontario doesn’t require employers to provide work schedules in advance, to guarantee part-time workers a certain number of hours a week, or to provide a certain amount of notice before cancelling a shift, the Toronto Star reported in May.

This lack of protections, says Toronto labour lawyer Andrew Langille, is disproportionately felt by specific demographics. “You have young people, women, recent immigrants, racialized workers. They make up a higher proportion of people in low-wage, precarious jobs – which is pretty much the type of positions we’re talking about when it comes to retail and service.”

Earlier this year, the Ontario government launched a long-term review of its Labour Relations and Employment Standards Act, beginning with a series of public consultations in May. A report on the review’s findings and on how current labour laws should be updated is slated for early 2016.

In Deb and Samantha’s case, change came this past summer when the Metro’s local Unifor bargaining unit negotiated new terms for part-time employees. As of August, Samantha receives her weekly schedule Mondays—a full six days ahead of the first shift. She is also guaranteed at least 15 hours each week, having worked there for more than one year. Come the five-year mark, that guarantee will rise to 20 hours.

“It’s caused a bit of chaos for people in the stores making the schedules, but that’s starting to smooth out,” says Deb, who worked on the bargaining committee for the first time in her years as a member of Unifor Local 414. “At 51 years old, I was the oldest on the bargaining team. Trying to get people involved is tough, because many are working two to three jobs.”

Some local Loblaws stores in the province have also worked out similar agreements with United Food and Commercial Workers. In August, 60 Great Canadian Superstores and Loblaws Great Food locations began a pilot project of scheduling employees two weeks in advance on a rolling basis, so that a schedule for the following two weeks is posted each Thursday.

“Essentially, each employee has at least 10 days’ notice of what his/her schedule will be for the week,” UFCW Local 1000A president Pearl Sawyer writes in an email to TVO.org.

Should the pilot work, the practice will be implemented in all of the Loblaws locations in the bargaining unit. A second pilot project that includes reducing the availability requirements of part-time employees will also start in specific Loblaws locations.

“Oftentimes, in the retail sector, part-time employees may receive very few hours, but are expected (and in some cases required) to be available to work any shift scheduled by the employer (without any corresponding commitment on the part of the employer),” Sawyer writes.

Since the summer, Henry says other bargaining units have looked to mirror some of the agreements her unit reached in their negotiations. Lewchuk sees this as a good thing. “How broad this will become is an interesting question. Big grocery chains are large, so it’s easier for them to do this. It may be more difficult for smaller retailers, so it’ll be interesting to see how it spreads there.”

Who grows, sells and cooks your meals, and how can their jobs be made better? Each day this week, TVO.org will explore an issue on the intersection of food and labour in Ontario.

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