TORONTO -- As executives from Canada’s major grocery chains face questions about their decision to cancel a temporary wage increase for front-line workers during the pandemic, one Loblaws employee shares how difficult the work has been for her and her coworkers.

“I feel like people don’t understand. They don’t see the people crying in the breakrooms every day because they’re so scared of getting their families sick. No one sees that,” Loblaws employee Jocelyn Leask told CTV News for the streaming app Quibi on Saturday.

Leask, 18, has been working at a Loblaws grocery store in Richmond Hill, Ont., located just north of Toronto, for the past year as she tries to save money for college.

When the coronavirus began to spread in mid-March, shoppers scrambled to stock up on essentials and Leask saw her hours jump from about 34 hours per week to up to 60 hours per week.

On top of her regular duties as a seafood clerk, Leask was also asked to help out in other departments, deliver groceries to vehicles waiting in the parking lot, and count customers at the door to abide by new capacity limits.

“I’ve never really worked that many hours and especially in that environment where you have to be safe,” she said. “It’s a lot to take in.”

In addition to the overtime hours, Leask said she and her coworkers had to adjust to an entirely new workplace with physical distancing, face masks and other measures put in place to protect staff and customers from the virus. 

“It’s so much different,” she explained. “You can’t work properly. You have to stay six feet away from coworkers. It’s really hard. It’s really hard working during the pandemic.”

And while many Canadians have been able to ride out the pandemic from the safety of their homes, Leask said grocery store workers have had to risk their own safety and that of their families when they go in to work every day.

“I feel like people don’t understand. They don’t see the people crying in the breakrooms every day because they’re so scared of getting their families sick. No one sees that,” she said.

For Leask personally, the risk has been magnified by the fact that she lives with two family members at higher risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19. Her sister has cerebral palsy and her father had a stroke.

“I cried a lot after work. It’s very stressful,” she shared. “It’s that thing of like, ‘If I go home, will I be responsible for something horrible that could happen because of one shift I took today?’”

In recognition of the extra work and risks their employees were taking, the country’s largest grocery chains, including those owned by Loblaw Companies, Metro and Empire Co., offered a $2 per hour wage increase in mid-March.

Leask said she and her fellow workers welcomed the pay increase because she said they felt like they were being recognized for all of their extra efforts during these difficult times.

That is, until they discovered the top-up program was being cancelled earlier this month.

On June 11, Loblaw Companies, Metro and Empire Co., which owns Sobeys, Safeway and FreshCo, all announced an end to their bonus pay programs.

At the time, Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston explained they were cancelling the pay program because operations had stabilized in their supermarkets and drug stores.

“After extending the premium multiple times, we are confident our colleagues are operating safely and effectively in a new normal,” he said in a company statement.

However, the grocery store chains have faced increased pressure from politicians and the public alike to explain their reasoning for scrapping the pay programs when the virus has not yet been eradicated and they have all seen profits exponentially grow in recent months.

Loblaw, for example, has seen its profits increase by 21 per cent in the first quarter compared to the same time last year. The bump has amounted to an increase in net earnings of $42 million from last year’s first quarter.

In the hopes of getting some answers, the 11-member House of Commons industry committee unanimously voted to invite the executives from Loblaw Companies, Metro and Empire Co. to explain their decision to cancel the wage programs in a hearing expected in early July.

In response to an earlier request for comment, Loblaw said in a written statement that it welcomes the chance to clarify the facts to the committee.

“The temporary pay premium was never about safety, it was a recognition of extraordinary effort. Our stores are now operating at a normal pace, albeit in a new way,” the statement read. “Importantly, we have invested far more in our colleagues and customers during this pandemic than we have earned in extra sales. Those investments will continue well into the future. We are not putting profit before people.”

While the committee can’t force the executives to testify, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who introduced the motion, said last week he expects the grocery store executives to accept the invitations.

Leask said she hopes the extra $2 per hour wage increase will be reinstated because she and her coworkers are still at risk for contracting the virus.

“The pandemic is still very much going on,” she said. “It hurts. It hurts not just me, but my coworkers because it feels like they really don’t care.”

With files from’s Graham Slaughter