(Reuters) – Australia’s biggest supermarket chain Woolworths Group said on Tuesday it will reward more than 100,000 of its staff with free company shares for their efforts during a period of upheaval amid bushfires and the coronavirus buying frenzy.
The company said it would give full-time employees up to A$750 ($510) of shares each to keep or sell, while part-time staff would get shares on a pro-rata basis. Casual staff would get cash bonuses or store discounts.
The move reflects the outsize role – and sales receipts – of grocery stores around the world as governments raced to shut down restaurants, pubs and most other public gathering places to slow the spread of the new coronavirus in March.
It also comes after several top Australian companies, including Woolworths, faced heavy criticism recently after admitting to underpaying workers. Woolworths said in October it had underpaid thousands of its supermarket staff up to A$300 million for years, prompting a government agency to say it would investigate the company.
As the outbreak started to widen, Australians took to loading up shopping trolleys with non-perishable items like toilet paper, dried pasta and disinfectant to the point where the prime minister went on television to ask the nation to “stop hoarding”.
As airlines, discretionary retailers and casinos laid off staff by the tens of thousand, Woolworths and No. 2 rival Coles Group Ltd had to hire people to restock shelves and carry out “social distancing” measures like installing protective screens.
Before the virus, in the southern summer months of December and January, Australia’s grocery giants kept stores open even though many of their staff were affected by bushfires which ripped through the country’s southeast.
($1 = 1.4708 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Nikhil Kurian Nainan; Additional reporting by Shruti Sonal in Bengaluru; Editing by Byron Kaye and Muralikumar Anantharaman)