Airport security screeners are going public with what they deem substandard pay and "disrespect" from the federal agency that oversees their work.
The screeners are wearingstreet clothes at 42 airports as part of a new "Casual Monday action" to draw attention to concerns over wages and working conditions amid negotiations around a new collective agreement, the United Steelworkers union said.
Ottawa has been scrambling to respond to scenes of endless lines, flight delays and daily turmoil at airports — particularly Toronto's Pearson airport — caused by understaffed security and customs choke points and airlines.
Despite hiring more than 900 screening officers since April, the federal government has failed to mandate sufficient funding for employee wages and conditions, said union representative David Lipton.
"Quite frankly, they're overworked and underpaid. And there's been a tremendous amount of attrition in the last several months, because we've had senior employees that are leaving to take jobs that pay more," Lipton said in a phone interview.
The Ottawa airport has about 210 screeners on hand when there should be 350, he said. Wages typically run between $21.77 an hour and $23.33 an hour, plus a monthly bonus of $367 — a maximum of about $4,100 every four weeks — he said.
"They're working long periods of time without breaks, in some cases working forced overtime as well," Lipton claimed, calling the situation "untenable."
He said some screeners in Ottawa opt to join the Parliamentary Protective Service, where they make roughly $4 more per hour and generally face a less stressful work environment. The service oversees security within the capital's parliamentary precinct.
“CATSA is responsible for managing its relationship with its workplace," transport minister spokeswoman Laurel Lennox said in an email, noting the agency has nearly met its summer hiring target of about 1,000 screeners.
"Our expectation is ensuring that everybody who works for CATSA has a safe and respectful workplace as the sector continues is recovery."
The union's pressure tactic will not disrupt service in any way, union national director Marty Warren said in a release. Bargaining began in January, ahead of the collective agreement's expiration in March.
Security screening officers are employed by one of three companies subcontracted by the federal Crown corporation Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA).
The agency launched a program incentivizing employees not to take vacation or sick days, offering them a further $200-a-week bonus if they achieve perfect attendance.
NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach has criticized the bonus. "Seriously, in the midst of a pandemic, this minister is incentivizing workers who come to work sick. If he wants to get travellers moving again he needs to scrap this program immediately and start paying workers fairly," he said during question period in the House of Commons on Monday.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra noted the hundreds of fresh hires in security screening and customs. "We have adjusted many of our measures in collaboration with airports and airlines to ease airport delays. And we're working with workers ... who have been working very hard over the last weeks," he replied.
Neil Parry, CATSA's vice-president of service delivery, said last week the incentive was put in place because "there can be significant instances of absenteeism where people don't show up for their shift."
Not all of the new hires are ready to work yet, with training taking at least one month to complete. And security clearance levels for international flights are tougher to obtain, which means processing times for flights to the U.S. and overseas may not improve as quickly as those for domestic trips.
Canada's four largest airports (Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal) have been bracing for a 50 per cent rise in passenger numbers ahead of peak travel season.
As of June 1, those hubs were processing an average of 56,000 inbound passengers from abroad each day — more than half of them at Pearson, where scenes of traveller frustration have played out all spring. The figure will hit 80,000 within weeks, according to the Canadian Airports Council.
In May some 490,810 passengers — about half of all inbound travellers from abroad — were held up after arriving on international flights at Pearson airport, facing delays as they sat on the tarmac or underwent staggered off-loading to ease pressure on overflowing customs areas, according to figures provided by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.
Earlier this month, Ottawa suspended randomized COVID-19 testing of vaccinated passengers through at least June 30, following industry demands to process international travellers more quickly.
Transport Canada has also created an "outbound screening committee" made up of government agencies and industry stakeholders to address bottlenecks at security checkpoints.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press