At midday on Saturday, most shops have been shuttered on the ground floor of the Dún Laoghaire shopping centre, save for a local butchers, a pharmacy and, tucked away at the end, a SuperValu.
People are waiting outside the supermarket in long socially distant queues, while those inside shuffle awkwardly down narrow aisles, attempting to stay as far away as possible from each other.
Hand sanitiser stations flank the shop entrance and cashiers are tucked behind thick plexiglass screens.
While most people have got to stay at home, many grocery-store workers have continued to go to work every day to provide an essential service to the public.
In a recent survey of retail workers carried out by the trade union Mandate, a significant chunk of respondents noted risky practices in the stores where they work.
Of almost 7,000 retail workers surveyed, 46 percent said customers were not adhering to crowd-control measures. Meanwhile, 29 percent said their employers had not given them adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Since March, three of the five largest supermarket chains in Dublin have announced a 10 percent bonus on top of hourly wages for staff working through the Covid-19 pandemic.
These bonuses, also known as “hazard pay”, are not legally required under Irish employment law. Some say they should be – while others say there are good reasons why they are not.
Hazard pay is a bonus paid to staff – usually as a percentage on an hourly wage – for work that involves added risk or physical hardship.
This is one type of what economists might call a “compensating differential”. That’s an extra amount a worker gets paid for “taking a job that is more unpleasant”, says Ben Elsner, assistant professor at University College Dublin’s School of Economics.
Tesco, which employs 13,000 people and has 151 stores in Ireland, announced on 21 March that it would give its staff a bonus of 10 percent on top of their hourly rate of pay and a 10 percent shopping discount on items bought in store.
The arrangement was to be reviewed at the start of May. As of 4 May, the retail chain has said it will be extending this bonus until 30 May and increasing staff’s shopping discount to 15 percent.
Aldi followed suit, announcing on 24 March that staff would receive a bonus of 10 percent from March until the end of April.
Following a petitionorganised by Mandate, on 30 March Dunnes Storespledgedto give staff a 10 percent bonus to staff too – backdated to 9 March. The company also said it would give workers a staff discount card for 20 percent, and, according to Mandate, a Covid-19 sick-pay scheme.
Noticeably, two supermarket chains, Lidl and SuperValu, have remained quiet on the topic of hazard pay for their staff.
The Vouchers Question
Rather than offering them hazard pay for working through the Covid-19 pandemic, SuperValu has instead given staff vouchers that can be spent in the store, according to two checkout assistants.
The value of the vouchers depended on how many hours the staff member had worked in a week, according to the checkout assistants, who wished to remain anonymous because they were worried about compromising their jobs by speaking out.
One full-time staff member had been offered €70 worth of SuperValu vouchers in total from March. Another said full-time staff were offered more than €100 in vouchers, while part-time staff received less.
Both staff members said they would rather just get paid more, and decide what to spend that money on, than be given vouchers they had to spend in the store.
Results from an internal SuperValu staff survey of 800–1,000 respondents indicated that employees would like to see a 15 percent bonus on top of their normal rate of pay during the pandemic.
Some SuperValu employees have been offered larger sums in in-store vouchers, ranging from €250 to €300 total, says Ciaran Campbell, Mandate’s north and west divisional organiser. (Its Dublin representative wasn’t available to talk.)
Campbell says a voucher scheme offered to staff members in the Kavanagh Group’s chain of SuperValus in Donegal, Mayo and Galway is also dependent on the hours an employee has worked. “We also know that anyone who is 16 hours or less gets nothing,” he said.
This is unfair to staff members working fewer hours, who, Campbell says, still deserve recognition for “all the stress and anxiety they suffer everyday going to work and going home to their family”.
The Kavanagh Group has not yet responded to a request on Tuesday for an interview about this.
While companies like the Kavanagh Group operate individual SuperValu shops, the Musgrave Group owns the SuperValu brand, as well as Centra, Daybreak, and others.
Trying to figure out who is responsible for granting staff bonuses – the Musgrave Group or the individual franchisee – is tough, says Campbell, of Mandate.
The Musgrave Group has not yet responded to queries about who is responsible for setting staff reward schemes, or if they plan to implement hazard pay for staff, or if there is something they could do to reduce rates to franchisees in order to help independent store owners increase bonus pay.
Can They Afford It?
Managing a shop during the pandemic has been “really hard sometimes”, says
Robert Murphy, who owns and manages the Supervalu in Ballymun.
“You’re on the front line, you have the customer beside you so you tend to manage it minute by minute, hour by hour,” Murphy said, by phone in early April.
Murphy says he also owns and manages a Centra and the local post office in Ballymun. He’s been trading in the northside suburb for more than 30 years and, across the three businesses, he employs about 90 people, he says.
Inside Murphy’s stores are public-health measures. Screens for sales assistants, for example. But “I think there is a trade-off with safety” when providing a fundamental service, he says.
Experience in dealing with extreme weather conditions such as the 2018 so-called “Beast from the East”, has helped him understand that his staff may deal with crises differently.
“You have to allow people to process information and make their decisions,” he says.
Some of his employees are afraid to come to work as they might have younger children or older parents, he says. “They are making decisions for themselves on the background that they have.”
For his businesses, the focus has “shifted overnight”, Murphy says. Sales through his click-and-collect service and online have grown 900 percent, he says.
But discretionary spends like coffee, and items from the deli, butchers and produce sections have dipped. Delivery costs have risen significantly too, he says.
“We’ve a person on the floor picking groceries for 20 minutes, then it takes another 20 minutes to deliver it, then there’s a person in a van, tax, insurance, fuel, all that kind of stuff,” he says.
Overall though, Murphy does think that his staff should receive compensation for their extra work, he says. “It’s very challenging and there’s a lot going on.”
“We’re having to dig a lot deeper in relation to our workload. Remuneration needs to be given especially over the last couple of weeks,” he said.
Last week, Murphy said he is giving his staff One4all vouchers – although he wouldn’t say for how much – and that “they are dealing with it on a weekly basis”.
It’s unclear whether Murphy has the discretion to give the staff in his shops hazard pay, or whether he needs permission from Musgraves.
No Right to More Pay
The law is clear when it comes to hazard pay, says Richard Grogan, a solicitor specialising in employment law: nobody has a right to it.
Instead, “their entitlement is to withdraw their labour – to say, ‘If I don’t get paid more I’m going on strike,’ or, ‘If I don’t get paid more, I’m leaving.’ That’s all they are entitled to to do,” Grogan says.
Campbell of Mandate agrees: “He’s right, there is nothing in law to suggest hazard pay.” But there should be, he says.
Hazard pay should be compulsory for workers who are putting themselves at risk in times of crisis, Campbell says. The reason it’s not might “be down to union membership levels and union representation at that level”, he says.
Micheal Taft, a researcher at the union SIPTU, says, “The real problem is that we don’t have the labour-market institutions or the practices to address these and we are reliant upon good employers.”
“At the end of the day most people in the retail sector […] are not members of a union, we don’t have collective bargaining so that puts workers at a disadvantage in trying to make the case,” he says.
Taft and Campbell both pointed to the lack of collective-bargaining legislation in Ireland.
“There is no law in Ireland that provides for an employer to recognise a trade union,” Campbell said. “We need legislation that gives due legal recognition for the existence of trade unions and their right to collectively bargain for their members.”
Grogan says that there would be knock-on impacts, though, if hazard pay were paid to other employees in different sectors in Dublin due to higher risk during the pandemic.
“Every employee in the country when we get back to work would be entitled to an increase in salary because everyone would be saying, ‘Well I have to get on a bus to go to work so should I get more?’” he says.