Retail workers are the interface between the public and essentials they need. They are also most likely to be one of the only points of social contact people have day-to-day as the global lockdown continues. There are over 110,000 colleagues employed by the UK’s 18 co-operative retail societies – and that doesn’t include the many smaller worker co-ops, community shops and food producers that are helping to keep the nation fed.
In a letter to colleagues in April, Co-op Group chief executive, Steve Murrells, wrote: “Some of you will be preparing to come into work today after a busy weekend shift. Others are preparing to come into work as you’ve never known it before, full of angst and worried customers. Others will be preparing to be full time colleagues, full time home-school teachers and full time parents. Simultaneously. Others will be wondering how to fulfil your role and maintain your relationships over Teams and conference calls.
“All of us will be coming into work determined to do our best for our members, customers and their communities. Bringing our skills, energy
and determination to the job at hand. Be confident that our work is hugely valuable at this time. Our customers and their communities need us. Be patient with yourself and each other. We’re all learning. We will get through this together.”
While the UK has been rightly applauding NHS workers for their work during this toughest of times, there has also been public acknowledgement of the essential role that retail workers play. A letter sent to co-op retail societies co-ordinated by Alex Norris MP and signed by every Co-op Party parliamentarian, expressed “sincere thanks and appreciation to co-op retail staff for the incredible work they are doing in these unprecedented times.” It added: “Across the country, the efforts of your staff and colleagues in co-operative societies have done so much to support the local communities they proudly serve and ensure essential food and supplies are available, despite the challenging circumstances.”
The Party also organised a virtual thank you card for shopworkers, which to date has been signed by over 10,000 people, many of whom added personal messages. “As a nurse in the NHS for 31 years I say thank you for keeping the country going. Without all of you, we couldn’t do our job. Stay safe and remember we, the NHS staff, clap on Thursdays for you all and every key worker,” wrote one person.
Co-op MPs helped to ensure that retail workers were included in the Government’s list of key workers, and have a long record of standing up for better protections for retail workers facing violence. This is needed now, more than ever; figures released by Usdaw at the end of April show that, of the 4,928 staff surveyed, one in six shop workers have been abused “on every shift” during the coronavirus crisis.
Tanya Noon, member and community relations officer (MCRO) and director of Central England Co-operative, has worked for the organisation in different capacities for over 30 years – and has seen many changes in the business, but says the current health challenge around coronavirus is unprecedented.
As an MCRO, Ms Noon’s main role is to support local communities and members in a number of ways, including running member groups, such as Tai Chi, keep fit, or painting groups. “Prior to the government’s announcement of lockdown, the MCROs took a decision to close all of its groups until the end of May, when this would be reviewed,” she said.
“This was a difficult decision and members got very upset and tearful. The groups are a lifeline for a lot of people, a way to get out and interact with others.”
From 23 March, Ms Noon and other MCRO colleagues were redeployed into food stores, and from there she joined a Community Hub project run from Central England’s store in Littleover, Derby. The Community Hub projects assist vulnerable people with their shopping through a link up with local councils.
“The change was emotional,” she says. “We had to cancel a lot of events and we were concerned for our regular members and how they were going to manage. But it was also good to be helping colleagues at the front end of the business. We have also continued to speak to the membership and community council (MCC) members through email updates and Zoom meetings.
“I am so proud to work for a co-operative that has such a diverse business and very direct contact with its members. Although I have missed my day job, the experience has been invaluable and to be classed as an essential worker made me feel very proud.”
Tanya Noon is also a mental health champion for the society – so the emotional welfare of her fellow colleagues was something she had particular interest in. She noticed that some colleagues were in fear of their health and were worried about what would happen if they became unwell.
“I have to say, the colleagues who are putting themselves out there every day to keep stores open and stocked are a real credit to the business,” she said.
“There are colleagues who have children and elderly parents to consider and they are putting themselves on the frontline, subjecting themselves to possible infection of the Covid-19 disease. As both a colleague and a director, I am so proud of their attitude and commitment to the business.”
She adds: “Some colleagues were very anxious. We all have a different approach to mental health, some people have had real issues around working on the shop floor and passing customers who are coughing and sneezing. We do not know anything about the customers coming into store, if they are self-isolating, if they had received a letter form the government to isolate for 12 weeks, or if they have anyone in their family are ill or are ill themselves. But staff are supporting each other, and that is brilliant.”
As a director who was working in a store, she also found it good to be able to reassure colleagues about stock levels and how the product and category team was working to fix any gaps. “That none of our stores had closed was a real credit to our colleagues and their attitude towards their stores,” she said.
Ms Noon also applauds the board’s decision to bring forward the society’s colleague pay award and to also pay colleagues on the frontline one week’s wage for all their commitment. “This came at a particular good time as though the colleagues were doing a brilliant job, their morale was starting to waiver – this was a fantastic incentive to show them how much they were valued.”
Ms Noon is looking forward to re-connecting with the member groups and having time to reflect and look at how the society can improve the membership offer and re-engage with schools and the community on new and innovating projects, where they can look at more digital solutions to assist in the work and connected people together in different way.
“I believe that face-to-face connections are essential for anyone’s mental health and wellbeing,” she said, “but it’s also important to use and learn about the additional digital tools that can assist us, especially so we can prepare for any future lockdowns that may incur.”