TORONTO -- As lockdown restrictions across the country continue to loosen, Canadian retailers are no doubt contemplating what the ‘new normal’ might look like for both customers and employees.

For more and more of these businesses, it involves creating entirely new jobs meant to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Whether these are workers dedicated to taking customers’ temperatures, sanitizing store equipment or controlling crowds, it’s possible that the demand for these types of tasks could continue to rise if a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t found.

Still, labour experts remain unclear as to whether or not adding these jobs will help boost the economy.

Sobeys, the Canadian supermarket chain, for example, recently began hiring employees to fill these types of positions. In an email sent to on Wednesday, Sobeys spokesperson Natasha Compton explained that the company has “created new roles across our business to address new COVID protocols,” referring to calls for both physical distancing and enhanced hygiene.

The grocery store chain says it has hired thousands of additional employees to fill newly created positions across 1,500 stores Canada-wide, some of which involve checking employee temperatures and “performing increased sanitation protocols.” These are in addition to the employment of truck drivers and workers responsible for receiving product shipments, as the company’s supply chain and warehouses “have been dealing with holiday-like volumes in the middle of spring.”

Retailers such as Longo’s, for example, have implemented “wellness screening protocols” for employees, which includes a temperature check at the start of each shift. In addition to this, customers will also have their temperatures checked by existing staff before entering certain Longo’s stores as part of a pilot project. The T&T supermarket chain has also implemented mandatory temperature checks for employees and voluntary temperature checks for customers across the country, also conducted by existing staff members.

This comes as the country faces an unemployment rate not seen in decades. According to Statistics Canada, this figure rose 5.2 percentage points in April to 13 per cent. The last time Canada’s unemployment rate was this high was back in December of 1982 at 13.1 per cent.

In April of this year alone, the Canadian economy lost 1,993,800 jobs – a record high – due to the closure of non-essential services. This is in addition to more than one million jobs lost in March, and millions of others facing reduced hours.

Earlier this month, the C.D. Howe Institute’s Business Cycle Council announced that Canada had officially entered into a recession in the first quarter of 2020.

The economic impact of COVID-19 can also be seen through job search websites such as Indeed. The popular online search engine has witnessed an overall decline in the number of new Canadian job postings on its website, according to a company report. The number of new postings on the site as of May 22 stood at 48 per cent below last year’s trend.

Job postings across various sectors have taken a hit on the website, explained Brendon Bernard, an economist with the company. But what’s interesting to note, he said, are the sectors facing smaller than average declines in the number of related job postings. These include security and public safety, as well as nursing.

These figures, said Bernard, are reflective of a new reality companies face as a result of the pandemic.

“Grocery stores, for example, are limiting the number of people that are entering at one time and that requires someone there to keep an eye on the situation,” Bernard told this week over the phone. “That’s just one of the factors in this current strange situation that’s helped maintain demand for public safety workers.”

When it comes to the creation of entirely new jobs meant to address health and safety throughout the ongoing pandemic – such as temperature scanners or crowd controllers – Bernard said it’s too soon to analyze trends among these types of job postings. While each business will no doubt take its own approach, Bernard points to the likelihood of harder-hit companies focusing more of their attention on rehiring pervious employees and assigning them new tasks as opposed to hiring new employees altogether.

“In terms of companies that have temporarily closed their doors over the past few months, chances are they’re going to look to bring back the workers that they already had,” he said. “It’ll be a lot easier to get back up and running without having to go through onboarding processes and things like that.”


Sheila Block is a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives whose research specializes in Canada’s labour market. She also points to the possibility of companies expanding the responsibilities of existing employees in lieu of hiring new ones, as a way of addressing some of the health and safety concerns that have surfaced with the pandemic.

“If you're looking for somebody to work in retail, sometimes they might be doing crowd control and sometimes they might be at the cash,” she told this week over the phone. “I don't see a whole new category of occupations and job markets opening up.”

Much of the reason for this, she said, stems from the potential short-term nature of the current situation. Pandemics come and go, she explained. As a result of the uncertainty surrounding the development and containment of the virus, Block predicts companies will be reluctant to make substantial changes to their existing workforce or hiring practices.

“If we don’t get a second wave…then these jobs will no longer be relevant, so there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Block. “We’re in a very new and fluid situation, so trying to figure out anything beyond the next month I think is really tough.”

Another reason why companies may be unlikely to hire employees to perform these new tasks is that many of them do not require extensive specialized training, she said.

“I do think people will need some on-the-job training to keep up with the public health directives of how many people you are allowed to have in a store, safe physical distancing [and] handwashing and merchandise sanitizing rules,” she explained. “[But] I don’t think anybody is going to have to go to college [for this].”

A final contributing factor Block points to is the economic fragility of many businesses in the current labour market.

“They will be looking to keep their cost as low as possible and that means having people in multiple roles at least initially when you don’t know how many customers are going to be coming back,” said Block.

Block also does not believe that the creation of new jobs such as these will do much to stimulate the economy.

“Whatever increased hiring there is in little pockets of the economy…that is not compensating for the widespread layoffs we’re seeing,” she said. “I think the growth in things like screeners and temperature takers will not be sufficient to make up for the huge losses that we’ve seen in non-essential retail and food and accommodation services.”

Sobeys is also tasking its existing employees with monitoring the number of customers inside stores to ensure that the amount does not exceed a certain limit, the company spokesperson said. This is in addition to making sure customers maintain the recommended physical distance of two metres from one another. Along with managing the flow of customers, employees will also wipe down carts.


Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), said he could see other companies taking a similar approach as the pandemic goes on. He explains that the CLC is even considering the implementation of additional health and safety measures, including increased sanitation as well as temperature checks.

“Our office has been closed now since March 16,” he told via telephone this week. “All of the things that we have to think through in regard to this…we’re evaluating right now in terms of our workplace reopening.”

While he has already witnessed these measures in action while visiting certain retail stores, he also notes that based on conversations with colleagues, it is clear not every workplace that has reopened is taking measures to ensure the health and safety of customers and employees.

Yussuff especially calls on employers to continue making efforts to collaborate with their respective health and safety committees to impose physical distancing measures and the use personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and plexiglass screens, as well as sanitation on a regular basis.

Block calls on the government to continue providing guidance and support, particularly in the form of guaranteed paid sick leave, for those who will be required to perform these tasks.

“These jobs that might be expanded are high-risk jobs and they’re essential to keep wider population safe,” she said. “The government has an absolutely crucial role in terms of setting out the minimum standards that will protect the health of these workers, their families, and by extension, the broader public.”

According to Yussuff, the pandemic has showcased how undervalued frontline workers now providing essential services have typically been, despite risking their lives. It’s time, he said, for change.

“Some workers have been extremely undervalued in the history of our country and the economy and the labour market and I think we as Canadians need to figure out how we can address these concerns,” he said. “These workers have been called ‘heroes’ and a lot of very important accolades in regard to their performance and their duties, but I think more importantly what these workers would prefer is…to be compensated accordingly for the important work they’re doing on our behalf.

“I think they want more than ‘thank you.’”