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Airport Security | Unions deplore high staff turnover

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(Toronto) Unions representing security screeners at Canada’s airports say turnover of new employees is high despite efforts to hire more workers.

In some regions, barely one in three recently hired people is still in the job.

Significant flight delays and cancellations at airports across Canada earlier this year captured the attention of passengers and politicians. To alleviate the chaos, the government has since hired more than 2,000 new screeners.

David Lipton of the Steelworkers union, which represents around 2,000 security screening officers at 41 airports, says only about a third of screeners hired have stayed on, with the rest quitting during the training period or not. Other unions have reported similar turnover levels for recent new hires.

For example, David Lipton reports that the Ottawa airport needed 350 to 380 workers to have adequate staff, but there are about 270.

Security screeners at Canadian airports work for third-party contractors hired by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), a Crown corporation. Three major contractors provide screening officers at airports across Canada: Allied Universal, Securitas and GardaWorld.

CATSA says the average reported attrition rate for security guards during the quarter ended September 30 was 12.2%. Spokesperson Suzanne Perseo says the agency is ready for the upcoming holiday season.

GardaWorld and Allied Universal say they are well-staffed, with GardaWorld increasing holiday hires, while Securitas declines to comment, citing ongoing negotiations.

Almost all of the security guards represented by the Steelworkers union are currently in negotiations with their employers. Among them are screening officers from Quebec and Atlantic Canada, who recently rejected an offer from Securitas, and workers at the Ottawa airport who are negotiating with GardaWorld.

David Lipton observes that inflation has made current salaries for security screening less attractive, making it harder to retain workers. “In times of high inflation, workers need a bigger raise just to make ends meet,” he says.

But he adds that working conditions are also driving people away, because with fewer workers, shifts are longer and more stressful.

Keith Aiken of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents thousands of security guards in British Columbia and Ontario, including those at Toronto’s Pearson airport, says the turnover rate of security guards is very high. In the case of Pearson airport, he explains the phenomenon by working hours and working conditions.

“Our pre-board screening officers are highly supervised and work in a stressful environment, which makes new workers unwilling to do the job,” according to Keith Aiken.

The office of the Minister of Transport recognizes that, like other sectors, CATSA currently faces higher staff turnover rates. But spokeswoman Nadine Ramadan says CATSA has reached pre-pandemic staffing levels at major airports and is entering the holiday season with shorter wait times. For example, she tells Pearson, CATSA is 25% above pre-pandemic staffing levels, including turnover.

However, Keith Aiken observes that the new employees who remain face backlogs in the training process provided by CATSA. Therefore, many new recruits can only perform certain tasks, not complete tasks.

CATSA’s Suzanne Perseo responded that the screening authority changed its training earlier this year to “accelerate screening officer preparation while prioritizing security effectiveness.” This means that some recruits perform tasks other than selecting from queues to optimize staffing. Mme Perseo reports that CATSA has also added more trainers.

Catherine Cosgrove of the Teamsters Union, which represents about 1,000 GardaWorld screeners across Canada, observed that COVID-19 has changed the reality for workers. “The turnover is currently widespread,” she says, agreeing that about a third of recruits in recent months are still in place.

Screening officers at the Edmonton airport signed a deal in September with a 12 per cent wage increase over two and a half years after voting to strike in July. But despite these gains, Mme Cosgrove believes worker retention will be a persistent problem in the industry.

David Lipton warns that as the holiday season approaches, officers unionized with the Steelworkers may not be able to strike. The unions are awaiting a decision from the Canada Industrial Relations Board on whether they have the right to strike.

USW calls on government to increase funding for CATSA screeners, saying employers cite funding restrictions in their third-party contracts as reason for not being able to offer better deals at the negotiating table.

CATSA has not commented on its funding, but says it believes contractors can work with unions to reach agreements, while transport minister staff say the government has not cut or reduced funding for CATSA staff.

But David Lipton thinks “a major problem is that CATSA must adequately fund screening operations so that screening contractors can pay appropriate salaries to these people and stabilize the workforce”.



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