Despite concerns that increased automation and the shift to e-commerce would put more grocery store employees out of work, a new report says that demand for food retail workers in Ontario has increased through the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the report from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, grocery retail chains are still hiring for traditional, consumer-facing positions such as cashiers and clerks. At the same time, the rapid acceleration of e-commerce operations spurred by the pandemic has led to companies hiring more people to help with tasks such as order invoicing, fulfilment and delivery.
"Despite the public debate about automation potentially disrupting employment for food retail workers, employers are hiring and the pandemic has only increased the need for these positions," the report says.
The report, which was released Wednesday, analyzed the disruption, change and opportunity within Ontario's grocery sector. It found the pandemic accelerated the adoption of online shopping among Canadian consumers, pushing grocery chains to move up major investments in infrastructure and technology that support e-commerce operations.
Despite the increase in hiring, the report also noted that quality of work and low wages remain key issues that the grocery industry is increasingly being pushed to address. In Ontario, nearly 200,000 people work as cashiers and shelf stockers at grocery stores. Of the 130,000 working as cashiers, 82 per cent are women and 80 per cent work part-time. There are approximately 69,000 working as shelf stockers, 68 per cent of whom are men and 68 per cent working part-time. Each job makes a median hourly wage of $14.25.
"There is a disconnect between the value of these roles, the risk associated with front-line work and the relatively low wages and job quality experienced by many workers," the report said.
"The industry is being challenged by many to find a better balance between profitability, price, and their responsibility to essential workers."
COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the importance of grocery store employees as frontline workers, pushing Canada's major food retail chains to offer wage increases and so-called "hero pay" for workers in the early days of the pandemic. Loblaw (L.TO), Empire (EMP), and Metro (MRU.TO) were at the centre of public backlash last summer after scrapping the pay raises on the same day. Executives from the three retailers had to testify in front of a House of Commons committee over the decision.
While some companies, including Empire and Metro, have since reinstated some forms of pay increases and offered one-time bonuses, the report found that many workers still felt undervalued through the pandemic.
"Workers interviewed in fieldwork reported concerns about risk of losing hours and being sent home due to a COVID-19 screening or needing to take unpaid sick days, and did not associate hero pay with feeling valued or recognized for their increased effort and risk," the report said.
"Given challenges associated with pay and job quality, some of these workers may wish to investigate pathways into other occupations."
Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.