You may be happy that the LCBO is still open — but employees aren’t

Non-essential businesses across the province have been told to shut down. So why not liquor stores?
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Mar 24, 2020
An LCBO store on Princess Street, in Kingston. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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KINGSTON — A voice rings out over the speakers at the LCBO on Princess Street: “Can we get a cashier to the front? We’re at capacity. Close the doors.” At the entrance, an employee wearing an orange parka relays the news to arriving customers, and a small line forms outside the door. A few people exit, and the line disappears. 

Some of the customers are stocking up on this snowy Monday afternoon — shopping carts provide a built-in distancing mechanism; others are just picking what they need for the next few nights. “I could live without it, but I’d rather have it around for my evening meal,” says Mike Patterson, a retired high-school teacher who bought a few bottles of wine and says he would manage if the LCBO were to shut down completely. But that won’t be happening yet.

On Monday, Ontario premier Doug Ford announced that all non-essential workplaces would have to close by 11:59 p.m. on March 24. Beer, liquor, and wine stores are on the list of essential services. The LCBO, which had already introduced limited hours of operation, announced on Monday night that, beginning March 30, all LCBO retail locations would be closed on Mondays. Reduced hours, management of traffic flow in the stores, and “elevated” cleaning practices are all part of the Crown corporation’s efforts to “ensure a safe shopping experience.”

But some LCBO employees are not convinced it’s enough. Geoff (who asked that TVO.org withhold his real name and identifying details), a part-time LCBO employee who works at a high-volume store in a major Ontario city, says that the decision to keep the stores open in their current configuration puts people at risk. A healthy man in his thirties, Geoff says he is not worried about his own health as much as he is about that of others who may be more susceptible to the virus. 

“For myself and some of my colleagues, we don’t feel scared ourselves,” he says. “It’s more that we, as a group of workers, are scared about becoming a vector for a sickness that will plug up the system and cause unnecessary suffering and death.”

Geoff worries that the government is more concerned about making money than it is about the safety of Ontarians. And, right now, he says, the LCBO is making lots of money: on Monday night, for example, his store more than doubled its projected sales, something that’s happened frequently over the past several days. “We've earned enough in the last week to pay for three weeks of sales,” Geoff says. “It feels like they could shut down today, not sell a single bottle, and still be on track in a few weeks. I think it’s a matter of priorities.”

In a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Ford addressed concerns about keeping liquor, beer, wine, and cannabis stores open. “I know there are some people at home thinking, ‘How does that work?’ Well, there are people out there with addictions. We’re there to help them; we’re there to support them … The advice we received from [mental-health and addictions experts] was make sure they stay open.” Ford also noted that the list could be subject to change in the future.

When asked for comment about the potential risks of keeping stores open as much of the province shuts down, the LCBO directed TVO.org to a press release announcing the further reduction in hours. Geoff says that his managers explained to him on Tuesday that the reasoning behind giving employees Mondays off is to give workers a break and prevent burnout. He predicts, though, that reducing hours will have the opposite effect: “They've reduced store hours, which feels like a silly idea,” he says. “The number of shoppers won't decrease — only the hours during which they show up. So the stores will actually be more densely packed,” thereby increasing the risks to employees.

Warren “Smokey” Thomas, the president of OPSEU, which represents the LCBO’s 8,000 employees, says he can appreciate that the government had a difficult decision to make: “As near as I can understand it, they don’t want a rush on grocery stores [for beer and wine].”  

Thomas says that the union has made “a lot of headway” on pushing for stronger protocols at stores and that he understands that some employees feel as if they have choose between a paycheque and their health: “These are personal decisions. You’ve got to balance out what you believe you can safely do and also keep your family safe.”

As an online debate raged over whether liquor stores should be considered an essential service, Toronto’s medical officer of health gave her take on why they could be deemed vital from a public-health point of view.

“Whether we care to admit it or not, there are many people in our community who have significant dependence issues with respect to alcohol,” Eileen de Villa said at a Monday press conference in Toronto. “And I think we have to be very conscious of that fact and be aware that if that substance, that provision, is no longer available, that that would lead to pretty significant health consequences. I think there is a reasonable rationale for that service to be continued to be provided.”

Jamie Ramage, chair of OPSEU’s Ambulance Division, agrees with De Villa’s assessment. “Anyone against LCBOs remaining open obviously hasn’t seen someone going through alcohol withdrawal. When people are deprived of the amounts of alcohol they are accustomed to, bad things can happen,” he says. “Delirium, seizures, unconsciousness — all of which require hospitalization and can lead to death.” 

Ramage says he thinks that another possible reason for keeping the stores open is that they give people a sense of continuity in their lives. 

“I’m in self-isolation right now. I love to cook,” he says. “One of my recipes called for wine, and I was able to send a friend to go out and get it. I think the Ford government did this so we can keep a sense of normality. You can’t take that away from people.”

Geoff thinks that the public-health argument is flawed and misleading — and that the government and the LCBO could find a solution that would accommodate those who might otherwise go through withdrawal. “There are so many ways around that,” he says. “And, for others, we are set up for online orders. We already do delivery. I think business-as-usual needs to stop. It doesn’t mean the LCBO can’t have an operation.” (Update: Canada Post is no longer making home deliveries that require proof of age; orders now have to be picked up at a post office.)

“I hate that I’m being forced to choose between myself and my neighbours,” he says. “I want to heed the prime minister’s advice that I self-isolate. But I can’t do that.”​​​​​​​

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jamie Ramage had gone out to purchase wine while in self-isolation. In fact, he sent his friend to pick up the wine for him. TVO.org regrets the error.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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