Airport security screeners are going public with what they deem substandard pay and "disrespect" from the federal agency that oversees their work.
The screeners will wear street clothes at more than 40 airports starting Monday 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 as well as airlines.
Despite hiring more than 850 screening officers since April, the federal government has failed to mandate sufficient funding for employee wages and conditions, said union national director Marty Warren.
“Airport security screening officers face tremendous pressure, stress and demands in their jobs, but they are underpaid and undervalued by the federal government,” he said in a release.
“Staff turnover is a long-standing problem, as many security officers simply quit to seek jobs with better pay and working conditions, and less stress. This has led to an untenable situation, with serious staffing shortages leading to greater pressure on security officers and unacceptable delays for travellers."
The union's response, which it dubbed a "Casual Monday action," will not disrupt service in any way, Warren added.
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 $200-a-week bonus if they achieve perfect attendance.
NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach has criticized the bonus. "It’s wrong and CATSA needs to scrap it. How about using that money to give workers a summer raise like they did at the Amsterdam airport?" he asked in a Twitter post last week.
Neil Parry, CATSA's vice-president of service delivery, said 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 (Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver) 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