Cross-border workers worry COVID 'politics' could complicate their commutes

·4 min read
Hundreds of people commute everyday from Ontario to the United States and worry that will become more challenging with increased border restrictions almost a year after COVID-19 first hit.
Hundreds of people commute everyday from Ontario to the United States and worry that will become more challenging with increased border restrictions almost a year after COVID-19 first hit.

(Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press)

Zain Ismail's commute has gotten a lot shorter over the past year.

It's still the same distance from his home in Windsor to the Detroit hospital where he works as an administrator, but the bridge traffic he would normally get tied up in has all but disappeared.

"Frankly I love it, but it's very surreal," says Ismail.

"Sometimes it's only you crossing."

He is one of thousands of Canadian health care workers who keep American hospitals running. Sometimes as much as 40 per cent of the workforce comes from north of the border.

"They could not operate if we could not cross the border and they certainly couldn't respond to a pandemic," says Ismail, whose job these days is planning out COVID strategy.

He says some Americans ask him to run errands for them in Windsor, bring back some Canadian ketchup or less expensive insulin.

Zain Ismail commutes from his home in Windsor to Detroit, where he works on COVID strategy for a group of hospitals.
Zain Ismail commutes from his home in Windsor to Detroit, where he works on COVID strategy for a group of hospitals.

Zain Ismail commutes from his home in Windsor to Detroit, where he works on COVID strategy for a group of hospitals.

Ismail is surprised by how Canadians look down on the U.S. pandemic response, when he finds the "entrepreneurial" private health system has been quicker to respond with COVID testing and vaccinations.

He and other health workers are exempt from the Canadian government's new requirement that anyone crossing at a land border needs to show proof of a negative COVID test.

But Ismail worries that future restrictions could make it more complicated to get to work.

"Unfortunately the border is a very political issue," he says.

"It's an issue that becomes optics for governments. They like to show they're doing something. Though looks good on paper and looks good in the media, it doesn't always solve the problem they think it might."

The long list of essential workers who can cross the border also includes those at large industrial employers, like the Algoma steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

A handful of the 2,000 employees come from across the border in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and in the spring were told they would need to quarantine for 14 days just to punch in for a shift.

United Steelworkers Local 2251 vice-president Mark Molinaro says one member from over the river was a dual citizen and a single father.

"He was faced with the decision of stay with my children, who I have to stay with because I have nobody else, or give up my employment," he says.

Several workers at Algoma steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. were told they'd have to quarantine for 14 days just to commute in from Sault Michigan just across the river.
Several workers at Algoma steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. were told they'd have to quarantine for 14 days just to commute in from Sault Michigan just across the river.

Several workers at Algoma steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. were told they'd have to quarantine for 14 days just to commute in from Sault Michigan just across the river.

The union won an arbitration decision in that case, but Molinaro says his American members are still worried about discrimination from their co-workers.

"As a union, we're protecting everybody. Not only the guys going over the border, but the guys who are here facing potential exposure," says Molinaro.

Truck drivers are some of the Ontario workers who cross the border the most and that's become much easier over the past year.

"To tell you the truth, it's been a pleasure. It's the only upside to this COVID," says Bob Heans, a 30-year veteran trucker from Fergus, Ont.

Bob Heans is a truck driver from Angus, Ont. who has enjoyed the shorter waits at the U.S. border during the pandemic.
Bob Heans is a truck driver from Angus, Ont. who has enjoyed the shorter waits at the U.S. border during the pandemic.

Bob Heans is a truck driver from Angus, Ont. who has enjoyed the shorter waits at the U.S. border during the pandemic.

He says he doesn't worry much about catching COVID on his trips deep into the United States.

"I wake up with a sore throat and I go 'Uh oh. Is this it?' and then it goes away," says Heans.

"I don't worry about it, because you could worry yourself sick thinking about it."

He also doesn't worry about increased COVID restrictions at the border, including talk that truckers might be required to get tested, since he is closing in on retirement.

"Not necessarily nervous about getting tested, I think it's more about the inconvenience of longer lineups and adding extra time to the trips," says Glenn Goodbody, who has driven a truck for 17 years.

The Hamilton-based trucker says some long haulers may welcome mandatory testing for "their own peace of mind," but he says his exposure is really limited on his short trips into the northern U.S.

Goodbody says he has noticed a real difference at the border, as American officials "don't seem quite as concerned" with wearing masks, gloves or asking health questions, the opposite of what he says he experiences coming back into Canada.